Re-Rivalry Week: Same Foe Presents New Challenges
By Paul Meyer
March 3, 2011
Meyer on Morris Link
Moon Township, Pa. - Fans attending Thursday night's Northeast Conference Tournament game at the Charles L. Sewall Center will witness history.
Not that Robert Morris coach Andrew Toole likes it - but we'll get to that.
The Colonials' quarterfinal game against Wagner is the first time Robert Morris University will play the same opponent in the regular-season finale and the first game of the NEC Tournament in the same arena.
The Colonials have played the same team in both the regular-season finale and the first game of the NEC Tournament once before, but those matchups against Mount St. Mary's in 2006 took place in different venues.
That season, Robert Morris lost to Mount St. Mary's, 64-62, in the Sewall Center in the final regular-season game and settled for the fifth seed in the conference tournament. Several nights later, the Colonials won at Mount St. Mary's, 67-66, in the quarterfinals. You might recall that finish - freshman Jeremy Chappell's three-pointer from the left corner in the waning seconds.
Thursday night's game, thus, is historic because Wagner and Robert Morris will play each other in back-to-back games on the same floor.
Sort of like the NEC's Rivalry Week - only different.
"It's like re-Rivalry Week again,'' Toole said. "I just can't stand that stuff. I hate that we have to play them again Thursday.''
Some might say this is like déjà vu all over again.
For sure, Colonial fans hope history repeats itself in this historic matchup. Then again, maybe they shouldn't - because as a fairly recent occurrence demonstrated, winning one game against a team does not guarantee winning the second game against the same team in the same place only days later.
Yes, the Colonials did beat Wagner, 66-49, last Thursday evening in the regular-season finale, so defeating the Seahawks again could be great for third-seeded RMU.
"If something crazy were to happen in the first round, maybe you get a home semifinal game if you're lucky enough to advance,'' Toole said.
"Something crazy'' happening would be top-seeded Long Island losing to Saint Francis (Pa.) in the quarterfinals. Or second-seeded Quinnipiac losing to Mount St. Mary's. If one of those things happened and Robert Morris beat Wagner, the Colonials would play at home in the semifinals Sunday.
But let's get back to the past. Back to three seasons ago.
In its regular-season finale in 2007-08, Central Connecticut State won at Sacred Heart, 100-87. CCSU senior star Tristan Blackwood had a spectacular game, scoring 32 points and adding six assists. He was 11-of-14 from the field, including 4-of-5 from beyond the arc, and 6-for-6 from the free throw line. He scored 24 points in a 16-minute span in the second half.
Four days later, the sixth-seeded Blue Devils played at third-seeded Sacred Heart again in the NEC quarterfinals. This time, Sacred Heart won, 84-71. And this time, Blackwood was far from spectacular. He went scoreless for the first 22 minutes and finished with 15 points, making just 2-of-10 from the field, including 2-for-6 from deep.
"As I remember, Sacred Heart made some adjustments and tried to trap him whenever he had the ball,'' CCSU coach Howie Dickenman said. "He had open shots in the (regular-season finale), in which he was terrific. Then (in the tournament game) the looks he had and the opportunities he had to score were minimized by changes that (SHU coach) Dave Bike made in his defensive strategy.''
And, folks, here's where RMU's Coron Williams enters this narrative.
Last Saturday, Williams, filling in for injured and out-for-the-season Karon Abraham, had a spectacular game against Wagner, scoring 26 points, grabbing five rebounds and committing no turnovers. He was 9-for-10 from the field, including 5-for-6 from beyond the arc, and 3-of-4 from the free-throw line. He scored 16 points in a 13-minute span in the second half.
"With Karon's injury, I would say the other Coron more than filled in,'' Wagner coach Dan Hurley said. "He played brilliantly. We couldn't really stop him. He had a monster game.''
But can Williams do it again? Can he come close to doing it again? Can the Colonials win again?
"Can he continue to move and come off screens and be as prepared as he was (Saturday night)?'' Toole wondered. "Obviously, the test for him will be coming back on Thursday playing against the same team. You know they're going to try to take him out. They're going to try to be physical with him.''
"But they're balanced,'' Wagner coach Dan Hurley said. "You can't get yourself locked into just one guy because they have a lot of guys who can hurt you.''
Williams, who's averaged almost 17 points per game over the past three games, hopes he can be one of those "hurt you'' guys again.
"Hopefully, I'm shooting the same way,'' he said. "When you're hot, you're hot.''
The Colonials as a team have been hot over the past three weeks, finishing the regular season with a six-game winning streak.
However, they'll have to guard against a feeling of over-confidence against the Seahawks.
"With our guys, you're always afraid of them getting content and thinking, 'OK, we did it on Saturday. It's just going to happen Thursday,''' Toole said. "It's a completely different event. Each game is a completely separate entity from all the others. I think we have some guys who understand that, but making sure that everybody understands it is going to be the hardest thing.
"You can remind them over and over how we lost to (Wagner) in Staten Island (Jan. 6), but we have to beat (last Saturday's performance) out of their minds so they're focused again and ready to play on Thursday. I guarantee you that the team that comes out on Thursday wearing green will be much better than the team that played (last Saturday night)."
Wagner probably will start a different lineup Thursday night.
For one thing, junior point guard Chris Martin, who averages 9.6 points and 3.8 assists per game and shoots 39.7 percent from three-point range, didn't dress for last Saturday's game.
"There was an opportunity for a teaching moment about what it takes to where a Wagner uniform and play for our program,'' Hurley said of not playing Martin.
It would seem Martin will play Thursday in the NEC Tournament game.
"If he represents our program in the absolute right way between now and Thursday, absolutely,'' Hurley said last Saturday.
Hurley, in his first season as Wagner's coach, also didn't start freshmen Naofall Folahan, Orlando Parker and Latif Rivers last Saturday. Those three have a combined 79 starts this season.
"I was not happy with their effort against Saint Francis (Pa.),'' Hurley said, referring to the Seahawks' 84-78 loss in Loretto two nights before playing RMU. "I wasn't happy with their preparation. (Not starting them) was an attempt at a wakeup call and an opportunity hopefully to teach.''
That freshman trio didn't do much against the Colonials last Saturday. Combined, the three were 2-of-10 from the field and contributed just 10 points.
For their part, the Colonials hope one of their recent standouts "returns'' Thursday night.
Center Lijah Thompson, who was so instrumental in RMU's late-season surge, was a virtual no-show last Saturday. The sophomore didn't score and had four turnovers. In his previous seven games, Thompson averaged 12.7 points per game.
A sinus infection slowed Thompson last Saturday.
"We're hoping it's cleared up,'' Toole said Wednesday. "He's been much better the last two days in practice. He's been able to breathe better. He's been able to some of the things we need him to do in order to win the game - like play.''
The Colonials, who lost at Wagner, 83-78, in overtime in that Jan. 6 game, played stout defense against the Seahawks last Saturday, something that became their trademark again during their six-game winning streak.
"We've become a much more solid defensive team,'' Toole said. "We understand that defense is the way you win championships.''
Wagner shot just 36.2 percent from the field (17-of-47) and only 21.4 percent from international waters (3-of-14).
Toole's players gave their defensive effort against Wagner Saturday a "B.''
"I'd give it a B-plus,'' Toole said. "In terms of how we defended them in Staten Island, it was an F. We were behind on every possession. We were late on switches. We were late on shooters. We didn't have very much urgency. But (Saturday) I thought it was a B-plus. There were only a handful of times where we had some breakdowns. To hold a team that executes its offense the way Wagner does with the tons and tons and tons of sets that Danny comes up with to 17 field goals is definitely a credit to your defense.''
While Robert Morris enters the NEC Tournament trying to win an unprecedented third consecutive league championship, Wagner is back in the event after missing out last season when it was 5-26 overall and 3-15 in the NEC.
"We set one goal going into the season, and that was to play in the conference tournament,'' Hurley said. "This is the position we've worked the entire year to get into, so we're thrilled to get an opportunity to play in the conference tournament. If we were playing UCLA, I don't think it would matter.''
As it is, the Seahawks are playing at Robert Morris. Again.
"They've won,'' Hurley said. "They have a belief. They know. We respect how hard their guys play. We respect their coaching staff and their ability to prepare. For us to win, we have to play an 'A' game.''
HE AIN'T HEAVY: Hurley, a solid college player at Seton Hall, has his brother, Bobby, on his coaching staff. Bobby Hurley was a great player at Duke in the early 1990s.
What's it like having his brother assisting him?
"We're both very competitive,'' Dan Hurley said. "We grew up watching a pretty intense coach.''
That would be Bob Hurley, Sr., their father and the legendary coach at St. Anthony's High School in New Jersey.
"I think that's probably rubbed off on both of us,'' Dan Hurley said. "I think this year's been a really good learning experience for us. For me, coming in from being a high school coach at St. Benedict's (in New Jersey), you treated the season like a sprint because you're playing for a national championship and if you lose one game, your season's ruined. College is a different animal, more like a marathon. And I think we both learned that this year. I think we'll be better for that experience next year as we try to take a team through a season.
"Sometimes he can be an incredibly calming influence. Sometimes he can stoke the fire. I probably need the calming influence more than the fire-stoking. But he's been great. I love having him. We're excited about our future.''
TOURNEY TIDBITS: Abraham's surgery on his partially torn Achilles tendon went well last Monday. He'll have a cast on his right foot for about two weeks, then begin rehabbing. He should be 100 percent by September … Wagner has lost eight of its past nine games at the Sewall Center. The Seahawks' victory in that span? A 69-65 win over RMU in an NEC Tournament quarterfinal game March 3, 2005 … Wagner has shot only 27.7 percent from three-point range over its past eight games … In three of their past four games, the Seahawks have shot 66.7 percent or worse from the free throw line. In the four games, they were 46-of-68 (67.6 percent) from the stripe.