Sunday, February 3, 2013

Sacred Heart Drops Second Straight to Mount St. Mary's, Now 6-4 in NEC

You know the old basketball coach saying: "When you allow your opponents to shoot 63% from the floor, commit nine turnovers, lose the battle on the boards by eight, and permit the opposing team's top scorer to net 23 points in the first half, then you probably gosh darnit dug yourself an insurmountable hole to climb out of."

OK, no one probably ever said that, but that quote was running through my mind as I witnessed the best half of Jamion Christian's tenure as the Mount St. Mary's coach, and perhaps the worst half of Sacred Heart's conference season. It just was one of those halves. Mount St. Mary's Rashad Whack was unconscious in the first stanza, draining all five of his three-point attempts en route to 23 first half points. If you just include Whack, SHU possessed a tidy 27-23 lead at the half!

Unfortunately for the Pioneers, eight other Mountaineers scored the basketball in the first half, which ballooned the Mount's advantage to 23 points. That, my friends, is a really difficult hole to climb out off.

"They took it to us and didn't miss. We didn't guard them and they had - I would venture to say it - one of their better halves," said a disappointed Dave Bike after the game. "I told the guys, for us to be any good, we have to be on all cylinders or close to it."

For Mount St. Mary's coach Jamion Christian, the first half was the type of basketball the 30 year old coach had dreamed of since taking the job this past offseason. Drain threes, force turnovers, and have their opponent back on their heels with a frenetic tempo. It was Mount Mayhem personified.

"Every now and again, you get a chance to see a glimpse of how good we can be offensively, because we have a lot of different guys that can play a lot of positions and score the ball," said Christian. "I thought the key of the game today in the first half is we played very unselfishly. Really shared the ball well and that's what I'm most proud of my team in sharing the ball. That's big." 

Sacred Heart, as awful as that perimeter defense was in the first half, came out with their usual fight in the second half. After blowing several opportunities to cut the Mount's deficit to single digits, SHU finally broke through after two made free throws by Shane Gibson. The problem was there was less than two minutes left in the game, and by then KenPom's probability odds of coming back had essentially evaporated away.

It's been a storyline all too familiar for SHU; in fact, today was the ninth time in 21 games where Sacred Heart fell behind by at least double digits, only to furiously come back and cut the deficit to less than ten, and at least give themselves a chance at pulling out the upset. Remarkably, the cardiac Pioneers have won four of those games in which they dug themselves a brutal hole (Yale, Stony Brook, St. Francis Brooklyn, Monmouth), but that certainly isn't the way a supposed NEC contender should play throughout the season.

"I think we have the spunk," said SHU head coach Dave Bike. "We just have to play better."

Offensively, the Pioneers played pretty well, especially in the second half. Louis Montes has his seventh double digit effort of the NEC season with a team high 21 points. Freshman forward De'Aires Tate once again played 20+ minutes and made the most of it, having the best game of his young career with 14 points, eight rebounds, and two blocks (all are career highs). Steve Glowiak had another solid effort with 11 points (3 of 6 from behind the arc) and currently leads the team with 31 steals this season. The guard from hard hitting New Britain has helped the Pioneers off the ball in his sophomore campaign, which was something I complained about last season as he was morphing into an insufferable ball-chucker.

And finally, Shane Gibson may have had an off night shooting the basketball (6-15 from the floor), but one of the best players of the NEC had 18 points, a season high six assists, six rebounds, and three steals. Still, if the opposing team is able to lock down Gibson from behind the arc (only 1 of 5), it makes things much more difficult for Dave Bike's squad.

"Rashad [Whack] did a great job (guarding Gibson)," said Christian. "Any time you're playing against a great player, you know he's going to hit some tough shots, you know he's going to make some. We really put the emphasis on whoever was guarding Gibson tonight. Whack did an unbelievable job just taking away shots and making him shoot twos."

Whack did have himself an unbelievable game, scoring a career high 35 points on 16 shots, grabbing four rebounds, dishing out three assists, and fighting hard through the off-the-ball screens to remain in Gibson's face all night. It was pretty darn close to the NEC single game performance of the season, in my opinion.

Mount St. Mary's freshman point guard Shivaugn Wiggins had 13 points and six assists in a season high 32 minutes. It's unknown whether his excellent play of late has begun to phase out junior guard Josh Castenallos, who only played five minutes Saturday night. Castellanos has been dealing with injuries throughout the season. The win moves Mount St. Mary's into ninth place in the conference with a record of 4-6.

Despite the two game losing streak, SHU find themselves in decent position, now tied for third place with a record of 6-4 in the NEC. They have a very good top four of Gibson, Montes, Glowiak, and Phil Gaetano, but with all of the injuries and youth in the front court, the depth remains the biggest issue for this team. It was evident in the past two games. Without ball handlers and perimeter defenders Chris Evans and Evan Kelley, this team will struggle against pressure defenses like Wagner and Mount St. Mary's, hence the 43 turnovers committed in the past two games.

Whether or not the team can overcome their shortened bench remains the biggest question, but at the very least, the cardiac kids in the red and white have made this conference season interesting to watch. And after witnessing the past few mediocre seasons, it's fun to see SHU have a chance to make some noise.

Ryan Peters covers Sacred Heart men's basketball for Pioneer Pride and Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride

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