Stretch Run: Home Game in NEC Tournament Within Reach
By Paul Meyer
Feb. 19, 2011
Moon Township, Pa. - The situation for the Robert Morris University Colonials has evolved from "win and you're in'' to "win and you're home.''
That's how important Thursday night's developments in the Northeast Conference were.
Not only did the Colonials clinch a spot in the NEC Tournament with an impressive 74-50 victory at Fairleigh Dickinson, but they also moved into a fourth-place tie with Wagner, which lost to visiting Long Island, 83-79, in overtime, and moved ahead of sixth-place Mount St. Mary's, which lost at home to St. Francis (N.Y.), 63-60.
Those three results left RMU tied with Wagner at 9-6 in the league, while Mount St. Mary's dropped to 8-7.
The significance of that is this: The Colonials entertain Mount St. Mary's and Wagner next weekend at the Charles L. Sewall Center. Wins in both those games would guarantee RMU a home game in the first round of the NEC Tournament.
However, there is one other thing.
The Colonials' play at Monmouth Saturday night.
Best not to overlook the Hawks, who have won three consecutive games to stay in contention for an NEC tourney berth.
"They do such a good job with their matchup zone,'' RMU coach Andrew Toole said. "Their style gives you issues. They can control tempo. They can make it a frustrating game.''
As the Hawks did at the Sewall Center Jan. 15 when the Colonials labored to a 60-57 win.
Robert Morris had no such issues against Fairleigh Dickinson Thursday evening.
The Colonials broke from a 14-14 tie in the first half, led 28-18 at intermission and basically cruised through the second half en route to their largest margin of victory in an NEC road game since winning at FDU, 74-40, Jan. 24, 2009.
The win puts the Colonials into the NEC Tournament for an eighth consecutive season and officially gives them a chance to win a third straight NEC championship.
But the Colonials would do well not to stop to take a breath at this point, as they seemed to have at other times this season.
"That's the message we're delivering,'' Toole said. "We told them in the huddles in the second half, 'This is not just about beating FDU. It's to prepare yourselves to beat Central Connecticut State and to beat Long Island (two possible NEC Tournament foes).'''
Toole and his staff compared the Colonials' situation to academic life in which a student now might begin cramming for final exams.
"This is cram time,'' Toole said. "You want to put yourself in a good position to do well on the final exam. And the final exam is the NEC Tournament.''
Thompson, a 6'7'' sophomore, extended his late-season surge with 16 points, seven rebounds, four blocked shots and three steals, one of his best all-around performances of the season.
"We talked at halftime about doing a better job of getting paint points,'' Toole said. "That if we were going to win, he was going to have to score in the paint. We worked with him on that during the week. Lijah was terrific. That's what we need.''
Thompson scored 12 of his 16 points in the second half.
Bridges, a 6'5'' junior, added nine points, including six in the second half.
Over the past five games, Thompson has averaged 13.6 points per game. In that span, he's 23-of-40 from the field and 22-of-27 from the free throw line. Over the past four games, Bridges has averaged 9.5 points per game and gone 16-of-21 from the field.
"Both of them have really simplified things, make one quick move and finish,'' Toole said. "We've worked with them on catching the ball, elevating and finishing. If those guys can continue to play at a high level, it makes all the difference in the world. It gives us offensive balance.''
Against FDU, the Colonials got 34 of their 74 points in the paint.
Sophomore Karon Abraham scored 12 points and drew praise from Toole for his ability to move on offense.
"It was one of his better games in terms of continually moving to get his shots,'' Toole said. "It may have been his best passing game and it certainly was one of his best movement games.''
Freshman Anthony Myers had another standout performance at the point guard position. He scored four points, grabbed five rebounds and had five assists - with no turnovers.
"At the beginning of the game, we got on him a little about giving up the ball a little too soon,'' Toole said. "He has to attack, get in the lane and make plays. He made some really good decisions.''
Myers has 104 assists this season, two short of the Colonial record for most assists by a freshman in a season (Samba Johnson, 106, 1992-93), against only 51 turnovers. His assist-to-turnover ratio is 2.04, which ranks fifth in the NEC.
All in all, it was an encouraging performance by the Colonials and positioned them for even more encouraging events.
"If,'' Toole cautioned, "we can handle our business.''
NEXT UP: Monmouth (5-9) moved into a tie with Saint Francis (Pa.) for the eighth and final NEC Tournament spot by beating the Red Flash, 57-51, Thursday evening. The Hawks led, 51-40, with 5:32 left, but the Red Flash challenged them mightily thereafter. However, a basket by Marcus Ware put Monmouth up, 55-50, with 33 seconds left. Jesse Steele's two free throws with 20 seconds remaining removed all doubt.
Steele came off the bench to score 20 points, going 5-of-7 from international waters.
"We're just trying to keep winning,'' Steele told the Asbury Park Press. "That's all there is.''
The Hawks are still without four players suspended for academic reasons in early January. And backup center Nick DelTufo played only two minutes against the Red Flash because of tender ribs.
"I think we're getting better,'' Monmouth coach Dave Calloway said. "This team has been through a lot.''
SITUATION SUMMARY: Each NEC team has three regular-season games left.
"We're playing to win the conference,'' league-leading Long Island coach Jim Ferry told the Staten Island Advance. "(Other teams) are playing to get a home game in the tournament. Teams really go at each other. These are really playoff games, and that's the way everyone plays them.''
NEC NUGGETS: Long Island improved to 13-2 with its win at Wagner. The Blackbirds were 31-of-43 from the free throw line; Wagner was 7-of-11 … RMU guard Velton Jones played sparingly in the second half because he rolled his ankle. Toole said Friday Jones should be OK for the Monmouth game … Mount St. Mary's had won 22 of its previous 25 NEC regular-season home games before St. Francis (N.Y.) rallied to win in the final three minutes … The Terriers led, 39-23, early in the second half, but Jean Cajou led a Mountaineer surge that put the home team up, 58-52, with 3:03 left. However, senior Ricky Cadell scored seven of his 20 points in the final 2:35 to turn back Mount St. Mary's, which is 1-8 in games decided by five points or fewer … Central Connecticut State (11-4) remained two games behind Long Island by edging visiting Sacred Heart, 57-56. The Pioneers' Nick Greenbacker had a three-point attempt that missed with one second left … Ken Horton had 18 points and seven rebounds for CCSU … Quinnipiac (10-5) had little trouble winning at Bryant, 80-60. James Johnson scored 24 points for the Bobcats, while Justin Rutty started and had 16 points and 10 rebounds for his 38th career double-double.