Happy New Year: Robert Morris Enjoys Switch of the Calendar
By Paul Meyer
Jan. 4, 2011
Moon Township, Pa. - During the final two months of 2010, the Robert Morris University Colonials always found themselves in a state of frustration relative to winning close non-conference games on the road.
Nov. 16 at Kent State, a 62-59 loss.
Nov. 29 at Cleveland State, a 58-53 loss.
Dec. 18 at Appalachian State, a 71-66 loss.
Dec. 30 at Morgan State, a 67-66 loss.
Quite the state of frustration, indeed.
But then on Sunday, just after the calendar turned to 2011, the Colonials won a close non-conference game on the road, prevailing at Ohio University, 79-76, in overtime.
Pretty much January business as usual for Robert Morris, which in the past three-plus seasons is 28-2 in the first month of the year.
This was a very welcome turn of the calendar, not to mention a welcome turn of events, for the Colonials, who have two more road games this week.
"I think it is a confidence-builder,'' head coach Andrew Toole said of the victory in Athens, Ohio, against a Mid-American Conference foe. "I think it was our best team effort of the season. We'd had some good team efforts, but I thought coming off a couple tough losses, coming off the (semester) break, coming off some tough practices, it was the first time this season that every single guy on the team's sole thought was, 'What can I do to make the team successful?'
"I don't think there was a selfish thought in anybody's mind for the entire 45 minutes, and I think that's why we won the game. Everybody was out there trying to make plays for their teammates.''
That showed in the boxscore. Four Colonials scored in double figures. RMU had 17 assists on its 25 field goals.
"I don't think it was just because the offense was clicking,'' senior Gary Wallace said when asked the key to the win. "Our defense was what really got guys jacked up. We all talked about believing in each other and trusting each other. The main thing was we didn't quit on each other. We scrambled and we hustled, and I think at times it might have shocked Ohio that we were scrambling and hustling the way we were. We played hard and we came out with a victory.
"We kept digging. As coach says, 'Get one stop, get a rebound and then get a great shot,' and that's what we did.''
It would have been easy for the Colonials to think, "Here we go again'' against the Bobcats.
Robert Morris trailed, 34-21, late in the first half. After rallying, RMU fell behind, 42-30, with 15:39 left in the second half. After another rally, the Colonials trailed, 50-42, with 9:30 left in regulation.
But instead of fading, the Colonials collectively said, "Here we go!''
"I've got to hand it to them,'' Ohio University coach John Groce said. "I'd watched them on film, and I really respected their resiliency and their toughness, especially with such a young basketball team.''
The Colonials received scoring contributions from one player who'd been in a recent slump and from another who'd been quiet offensively all season.
Freshman Coron Williams, who managed just six points in the previous four games while shooting 2-of-15 from the field, provided 14 points and a team-high five assists in 19 minutes.
Wallace, who scored only 29 points in the first two months of the season, welcomed in the new year with 13 points, hitting 4-of-8 field goal attempts, including 2-of-3 from beyond the arc.
"That's what Gary's supposed to do,'' Toole said. "When we talked to Gary at the beginning of the season about his role, that's his role. He's supposed to do what he did (Sunday). I know he's been disappointed in himself because he hasn't been able to do that. He made some shots and he played well. And now hopefully he can take this and run with it.''
"It was what I felt the coaches had been trying to get me to do on a regular basis, and it felt good,'' said Wallace, who's been struggling with a broken finger on his shooting hand. "We've had our talks and the coaches have been getting on me for a while. I guess I was just fed up with not performing and basically being a letdown to first and foremost my teammates and my coaches and then to myself. I knew someday it would click and (Sunday) it felt like one of those days. Now the goal is to just continue and be consistent.''
Same with Williams, who was 5-of-7 from the field, including 4-of-6 from deep.
"I thought our distribution of minutes (Sunday) was as good as it's been all season because (Wallace and Williams) made shots,'' Toole said. "You can rest Karon Abraham a little bit. You can rest Russell (Johnson). We can get into set rotations and routines and guys can know when they're going to be in and out of the game. I think that helps our guys with their consistency, knowing when they're going to be out and how much they're going to play.''
It also helped the Colonials that Abraham also emerged from a slump Sunday.
In three games since establishing a career high with 26 points against Youngstown State Dec. 11, the sophomore guard scored a total of 30 points while shooting 8-of-32 from the field, including just 3-of-19 from beyond the arc.
Against the Bobcats, Abraham scored a career-high 28 points. He was 8-of-17 from the floor, including 5-for-10 from deep, and 7-for-7 from the free throw line.
"It was the first time he attacked the rim,'' Toole said. "And he got to the free-throw line. We got on him Friday about what else does he do for his team. We said, 'OK, you want to be a standstill three-point shooter? Great. Well, Youngstown State was bad enough on defense to let you shoot 12 of them and you made eight. Congratulations. But what else are you doing? Are you getting to the rim? Are you getting in the lane? Are you getting to the free-throw line? Are you shooting a pull-up jump shot? Are you diversifying your offensive game? That's what scorers do. Are you going to be a shooter or are you going to be a scorer?'
"He needs to be a scorer and score in a variety of different ways for us to have success because if he just tries to be a shooter and stand on that three-point line we're not going to be as good offensively because we're not going to create enough pressure on the defense.''
Abraham's success as a scorer against the Bobcats could bode well for the Colonials as they enter the most significant part of their schedule. All of their remaining 16 regular-season games are against Northeast Conference teams who certainly are aware of the abilities of last season's NEC Rookie of the Year.
"Exactly,'' Toole said. "Karon and Russell are going to be the first two people that are going to jump off (other teams') scouting reports. We talked about it with Russell (Sunday). The first half, he kind of hung out on the three-point line. We said, 'OK, teams are trying to stop you now. What are you doing to try to stop them from stopping you? Are you going to the rim? Are you getting offensive rebounds? Are you getting out in transition? Are you trying to get fouled?'
"And in the second half, he missed two open threes, but he still was able to get 13 points in the second half because he hit two foul-line jump shots and he got to the rim and the free throw line. He scored on a break. He did other things that the game asks you to do, and he was able to have success scoring.
"Both those guys are going to have to learn how to (deal with) being marked men and (realize) that they can't just stand around. It takes effort to be a scorer in college (because) most teams aren't just going to allow you to stand there and shoot open shots.''
If Abraham and Johnson truly can become scorers, that should allow other Colonials to score, too.
"And I think that's what you (will) see,'' Toole said. "We had a lineup in the first half (Sunday) with Coron Williams and Karon Abraham in the game. Coron Williams got a couple open looks because the zone was shifting to Karon Abraham. They know who they want to stop. And Coron was tough enough to step up and knock those shots down. They were huge shots for our team.
"Gary, same thing. Lijah (Thompson), same thing. In the Morgan State game, we had opportunities for Lijah to get great chances to score around the basket because they were defending so hard on the perimeter. And in the second half, he had 12 points.''
One other aspect of the Colonials' offense that was encouraging in the final two non-conference games was the team's free throw shooting.
Through the first 11 games, Robert Morris shot just 63.7 percent from the free throw line. Against Morgan State, the Colonials were 20-for-27 (74.1 percent). At Ohio University, they were 18-of-23 (78.3 percent). In those two games combined, they made 38-of-50 free throws (76 percent).
"We've done a better job of trying to make guys practice more free throws,'' Toole said. "One of the things we did in practice was we've made it competitive now. Before, when we'd shoot free throws guys were just messing around. Now we send a manager to each basket and keep a total and the losing team does push-ups or run or whatever. Hopefully that will make them take it a little bit more seriously when they step up and have to shoot.''
NEC STUNNER: The Colonials, who split their first two NEC games in early December, resume NEC play Thursday evening at Wagner. No doubt, the Colonials noticed the score of Wagner's game at Quinnipiac Monday. The Seahawks, picked by the league coaches to finish 11th this season, upset Quinnipiac, 73-68.
Under first-year coach Dan Hurley, Wagner is 6-7 overall and 2-0 in the NEC. Last season, the Seahawks finished 5-26 and 3-15.
Tyler Murray led Wagner with 28 points at Quinnipiac, which didn't help itself by making only 15-of-26 free throw attempts (57.7 percent).
"We got caught on a night where emotionally we weren't as excited about competing as the team we were playing,'' Quinnipiac coach Tom Moore said. "Mix that with a team that is really patient offensively, and it's a recipe for an upset.''
NEC NUGGETS: There was another eyebrow-raiser involving an NEC team Monday evening. Central Connecticut State routed visiting Massachusetts, 92-63, getting 26 points from Robby Ptacek and 24 apiece from Ken Horton and Shemik Thompson … Sacred Heart coach Dave Bike got his 500th career win in the Pioneers' 77-75 victory against Holy Cross Sunday. "I've been fortunate to have a job I've liked at a place that liked me,'' said Bike, in his 33rd season at Sacred Heart. "I've been lucky and blessed.'' … Mount St. Mary's, with senior guard Jean Cajou playing for the first time this season, lost at Virginia Tech, 99-34, Sunday … The Mountaineers, who entertain Robert Morris Saturday, made just 9-of-53 field goal attempts. Cajou missed the first 14 games because he left school for personal reasons … Fairleigh Dickinson lost at Lafayette Sunday, 98-92, in two overtimes … FDU couldn't overcome making only 28-of-47 free throw attempts.