BALTIMORE — If the rest of the 2016 Colonial Athletic Association men’s basketball tournament goes like the first day went on Friday night, it could be the most competitive one yet for the conference.
Both first-round games, among the bottom four seeds — while the top six seeds waited to see who they’d play in the quarterfinals — went down to the losing team’s final possession at Royal Farms Arena. Here’s how it happened:
ALLENS ADVANCE DREXEL
Don’t look now, but the Drexel Dragons have suddenly awoken. And now they’re set to take one more shot at the CAA’s best team in the postseason.
That was mainly thanks to some tough defense and a pair of Allens — freshman guard Terrell Allen and senior guard Tavon Allen — combining to thrown a collective wrench into the CAA tournament plans of the eighth-seeded Elon Phoenix (16-16, 7-12 CAA).
After losing 12 straight games and 16 of 17, the ninth-seeded Dragons (6-24, 4-15 CAA) have suddenly won as many games in their past four outings as they had all season prior to their sudden hot stretch.
Their latest victory came after they blew a 17-point first-half lead, and then clamped down defensively in the final minutes, before Terrell Allen (a Maryland native, playing in front of many familiar faces), hit a pull-up jumper in the lane with 25.1 seconds left, to cap a game-closing 6-1 run that lifted Drexel to a 57-56 first-round victory and into a quarterfinal matchup with top-seeded Hofstra on Saturday at noon.
“I had a lot of family come out tonight,” Terrell Allen said. “They all came out to support me and I just tried to show them what I can do.”
Tavon added of his Terrell, “Even though he’s a freshman, he doesn’t play like one.”
What one Allen started, the other finished, as the duo were the only scorers in double figures for Drexel, while junior guard Luke Eddy (11 points), who missed Elon’s final chance on an off-target jumper with eight seconds left, was the only double-digit scorer for the Phoenix.
A 3-pointer by Tavon Allen, who scored a game-high 17 points (while making four his first five shots, all in the opening half, and all from behind the arc), staked the Dragons (who scored the first 10 points) to a surprising 18-2 lead after less than seven minutes.
But a trey from freshman guard Sheldon Eberhardt (his only points) — Elon’s first 3-pointer in five attempts — cut the margin to 31-19 and began to swing momentum in the Phoenix’s favor, though Drexel still held a sizable 34-21 lead at halftime.
Scoring more points within the first 8:40 of the second half than it did in the entire first half, Elon took its first lead, 44-43, when a 3-pointer by freshman guard Steve Santa Ana (nine points in 14 minutes off the bench) ended a game-turning 23-9 Phoenix spurt. The Dragons had led for all but 20 seconds of the first 28:40 before that shot.
“They were the aggressors,” Elon head coach Matt Matheny said of Drexel. “They knocked us on our heels, they knocked us back. We did not respond very well to that. The game spiraled out of control.
“But at halftime, I felt like we were playing hard. I felt like if we could play well the first 10 minutes of the second half, it would be a great game, and we did [play well].”
After giving up the lead, Drexel scored the next six points, on a 3-point play by junior forward Rodney Williams (nine points, game-high 10 rebounds) and Tavon Allen’s fifth and final 3-pointer, to go back up, 49-44, less than two minutes later, but an 11-2 answer — which was started and ended by baskets from Eddy — gave Elon its biggest lead, 55-51, with 5:51 left.
However, the Phoenix missed its final six shots from the floor, and the Dragons tied the game, 55-55, after three points from senior forward Abif Kazembe (eight points, six rebounds) consecutive missed free throws by Elon junior guard Christian Hairston (seven points), with 2:38 left, and one of two misses at the line by Eddy — with just under a minute left — which kept Elon’s final lead at only 56-55.
“I thought we got good shots down the stretch, they just didn’t go in,” Eddy said.
Following Eddy’s last miss, Terrell Allen threw the ball up in the air in the front court to let the clock expire.
It worked, but head coach Bruiser Flint wasn’t pleased, saying, “If had held the ball, they’d have fouled him. That’s that high school stuff, throw it up in the air and everybody just stops. They don’t do that stuff in college.”
With he and his coach laughing about the play, Terrell blamed the decision on his teammate, sophomore Sammy Mojica (six points).
“Sammy told me to throw the ball up. When I threw it up, I saw the time was two seconds and then Tavon grabbed it, and the game was over.”
Flint noted, “We lost a lot of games like we won tonight… this time, we [were] able to finish it.”
Entering the night with a league-leading 9.5 made 3s per contest, the Phoenix (which beat Drexel 83-78 and 81-76 in two prior meetings this season) was held to just 4-of-14 shooting from behind the arc.
“We talked a lot about keeping them off the 3-point line, then the second half, they started driving,” Flint said. “I give them credit because they knew we were really on top of them for the 3. They got back in the game because we started fouling them.
“Our big thing was, they were the only team all year [in CAA play] to score 80 against us and they [had] killed us from the 3-point line, so that was one of big [things to emphasize] for the game.”
The same approach will be taken on Saturday.
And although Hofstra had a much better season than Drexel, the Dragons expect to compete well, having lost to the CAA’s top seed in a couple of close games (69-61, in Philadelphia, on Jan. 14, and 70-64 at Hofstra, 16 days later).
“The games we played against Hofstra were very similar to the games we played against [Elon], so hopefully we know what we’ve got to do,” Flint said. “We know we’ve got to keep them off the 3-point line… [but] Hofstra is one of the top two or three offensive teams in the league, so it’s not going to just be about the 3s. We know we’ve got a tall task.
“It’s a quick turn-around. It is what it is. If you want to keep your season going, you’ve got to be ready to go, that’s the bottom line.”
CHARLESTON HOLDS OFF HOLDEN, DELAWARE TO MOVE ON
One day soon, sophomore guard Kory Holden might be able to carry the 10th-seeded Delaware Blue Hens (7-23, 2-17 CAA) to a lot more wins than they had this season.
For now, he’ll have to settle for moral victories, like the one his team earned in a hard-fought, 67-63 opening-round loss to the seventh-seeded Charleston Cougars (17-13, 9-10 CAA), as Holden, a Second Team All-CAA selection — who led all scorers with 30 points on 10-for-25 shooting, including five of seven makes from 3-point range — was blocked on a potential game-tying layup attempt with three seconds left.
Sophomore forward Skye Johnson (15 points on 7-for-8 shooting) — pressed into greater responsibility without Delaware’s second-leading scorer (behind Holden), injured senior forward and Third Team All-CAA choice Marvin King-Davis — was the only other real offensive threat for the Blue Hens, who had a trio of other players go scoreless while not taking a shot in a combined 40 minutes.
“Credit our guys for not giving in,” said head coach Monte Ross, who in span of just two years, went from guiding a far different Delaware roster to its only CAA regular season and tournament titles, to finishing the season as the league’s worst team.
“I thought we just kept fighting and fighting and fighting, and I thought the performances of Kory and Skye were just outstanding.”
What made the performances of Holden and Johnson even more impressive was that they each were overcoming stomach viruses.
“I still don’t feel that great,” Johnson admitted after the game, while Holden revealed, “I felt I was going to throw up, and I didn’t want it to get on the court, so I just caught it in my hand.”
Meanwhile, Charleston had more balance while looking beyond its top three scorers for points.
Junior guard Payton Hulsey, a CAA All-Defensive Team pick and the Cougars’ sixth-leading scorer, led Charleston with a career-high 18 points (on 7-of-10 shooting) while posting nine rebounds and a game-high five assists.
“He had a great game,” head coach Earl Grant said of Hulsey. “We knew he was capable of that. That was a huge performance and we needed every bit of his efforts.”
The Cougars’ fourth and fifth-leading scorers, respectively — CAA Rookie of the Year and Third Team All-CAA selection, freshman forward Jarrell Brantley and sophomore forward Evan Bailey — added 13 points apiece as Brantley also collected a game-high 10 rebounds while fellow CAA All-Rookie Team pick, freshman guard Marquise Pointer (Charleston’s third-leading scorer) had the worst-shooting game of his young career, scoring just five points on 1-for-11 shooting, including misses on all six 3-point attempts.
Following a pair of early ties, the Cougars scored six straight points to lead, 16-10, before seven straight points from Holden, and 10 in a row for his team, put the Blue Hens up, 24-22.
However, Charleston closed the half on a 13-4 spurt to lead, 35-28, by halftime.
A layup by Hulsey stretched the lead to a game-high margin of 39-28, but 10 straight Delaware points closed the gap to one.
After the Blue Hens fell behind again, by five points, Holden drained a 3-pointer to cap an 11-3 stretch, to give himself 26 points and Delaware a 49-46 edge, with 11:02 remaining.
But four foul shots — part of Charleston’s considerable advantages in free throws attempted (31-18) and made (20-11) — ended a 14-5 run that moved the Cougars ahead, 60-54, with 5:39 left.
Refusing to go away quietly, Delaware thrice closed within one point, first on a 3-point play from junior forward Maurice Jeffers (eight points, eight rebounds), with 3:58 to play, and lastly, at 64-63, on a tough Holden layup with 21 seconds remaining,
But after Bailey sank only one of two free throws, Holden tried to drive through traffic along the left blocks, only to be the victim of one of three blocks by sophomore guard Cameron Johnson (seven points).
“My thing was to just get to the hole and try to draw a foul if I could,” Holden explained. “But I didn’t get enough elevation to finish the layup, and I actually got hit just a little bit.”
Yet not enough to draw a foul call.
Holden did receive praise from Ross, however, who while looking toward the future, said of Holden, “He’s been a leader for us all year… I think now, this is Kory’s team… he will dictate a lot of what goes on. The team will take on his personality and he’s earned it… I think he relishes that. I would not say that it’s his team if I were fearful that he couldn’t handle it, but he’s shown since he stepped on campus that he’s a leader of men.”
Following Holden’s last miss, two Brantley free throws with one second left sealed the win and Charleston’s quarterfinal matchup at 6 p.m. ET on Saturday, with second-seeded, regular season co-champion North Carolina-Wilmington, which allowed the same low point total in two prior meetings with the Cougars this season, in a 65-55 home win on Jan. 30 and a 59-55 overtime victory over Charleston exactly three weeks later.
As for getting back on track following a string of losses to end the regular season, Grant said, “Defensively, we did enough down the stretch, and I’m really proud of the way the guys competed in finding a way to win that game.”
The victory was Charleston’s first in 20 days, snapping a four-game regular season-ending tailspin which sent the Cougars from a solid 8-6 conference record and a possible first-round bye to 8-10 in the league and having to play an extra game in the tournament.
But that didn’t faze Grant.
“I never looked at it like we were struggling in the last month,” he said. “I thought we played well, we just came up short a few times.
“I just want to win and advance. I really want these guys to experience March Madness and have a good time and advance, and enjoy it, and we did the first step by winning the first game.