Moon Township, Pa. - The Robert Morris University Colonials Sunday at Wagner would love to give a reprise of the virtuoso performance they presented against Monmouth Thursday night in a 2012 Northeast Conference Tournament quarterfinal game at the Charles L. Sewall Center.
Conversely, what the Colonials absolutely do not want to do Sunday in an NEC Tournament semifinal game at Wagner is give an encore presentation of their performance at the Spiro Sports Center Feb. 2.
On that night about a month ago, Robert Morris lost to Wagner, 80-69.
"We stunk. We absolutely stunk,'' RMU coachAndrew Toole said after that listless effort. "I'm at a loss right now.''
That defeat, which gave them back-to-back losses in which they allowed at least 80 points in each, probably marked the low point of the season for the Colonials.
"I'm frustrated,'' Toole said. "I think the coaching staff is the most frustrated, and that's a bad feeling. The lack of energy we had is beyond me. It's almost like (the players) don't think the other team is going to try very hard.''
The Colonials that night missed 11 of their first 12 shots en route to falling behind, 14-2. Twelve minutes went by before any Colonial other than reserve freshman guard Brandon Herman scored. Herman would finish with 11 points and ranked as the top RMU scorer that evening. Starting guards Velton Jones and Coron Williams combined to shoot 4-of-21 from the field, including 3-for- 12 from deep, and scored a total of 17 points.
The free throw disparity was another irritant. Wagner was 34-of-40 at the stripe. The Colonials were 15-for- 20.
It was an all-around poor demonstration by the Colonials, who lost for the fourth time in eight games and slipped to 16-8 on the season overall and 7-4 in the NEC.
However, the Colonials responded so well to that bit of adversity - reeling off seven wins in eight games since - that they're only two victories away from a third NEC championship in four seasons.
Now that loss at Wagner is a teaching point for this game at Wagner.
"I don't think our guys feel they played their best when we were there last time,'' Toole said. "Maybe we didn't prepare them for the defensive intensity they were going to face. We didn't get in a very good offensive rhythm. We didn't come out with the energy we needed to.''
Toole paused, thinking of the teaching point he'll use with his team as it prepares for Sunday's game.
"I think,'' he said, "we'll kindly remind our guys of that.''
The third-seeded Colonials (23-9) will meet a Wagner team that improved to 25-5 Thursday with an 87-77 quarterfinal win against visiting Central Connecticut State.
"We know it's going to be an intense, difficult, hard-fought game,'' Toole said. "It's going to be about rebounds and getting loose balls. It's about making winning plays. It's following our defensive formula. You can't have any lapses when you're in the playoffs. Every time you have a breakdown, every time you try and cut a corner, every time you try and relax or take a play off, you're going to be taken advantage of. And every time you do that, you're jeopardizing your season continuing. That's the mind-set we have to have going into the game - that every bucket they get, they're really going to have to earn.''
The Colonials should be in a better place mentally Sunday than they were going into their visit to Wagner a month ago. Back then, they were coming off a soporific performance in an 81-69 loss at home to St. Francis (N.Y.).
This time they head to Staten Island, N.Y., fresh from dominating Monmouth in an 87-68 victory.
Not only did the Colonials' point total represent their high for this season, but it also marked their highest point total in an NEC Tournament game since a 106-94 win against Saint Francis (Pa.) in the semifinals in 1983.
Robert Morris was spectacular from beyond the arc against Monmouth, tying a program record with 16 trifectas in a season-high 29 attempts. And the Colonials were equally spectacular in defending the trey. The Hawks were just 3-of-19 from deep.
"I thought it was a very impressive effort by us,'' Toole said. "I thought we shared the ball as well as we have all year. I thought we were very effective offensively. I thought we defended the three with great energy and great urgency.''
"I take my hat off to Robert Morris for the effort they gave,'' Monmouth coach King Rice said. "It was pretty impressive. Andy had those kids ready, and they came out and they played like a championship-level team.''
Williams, who scored a total of only 10 points in the previous four games, scored a game-high 25 points on a dizzying display from deep. The sophomore drained an NEC Tournament-single game record 8-for-11 from beyond the arc.
"Every time he pulled up, I was like, ‘That's money,''' Rice said.
Freshman Lucky Jones also cashed in, coming off the bench and scoring 16 points and grabbing seven rebounds.
Sophomore Anthony Myers also contributed mightily off the bench, providing 12 points and four assists.
Velton Jones, the junior veteran who most assuredly is the Colonials' Most Valuable Player this season, produced his first collegiate double-double with 12 points and 10 assists against a Monmouth defense deployed specifically to stop him.
"You look at what happened in our first two games (against RMU this season),'' said Rice, whose Hawks were 0-3 against Robert Morris this season. "Velton Jones killed us - both times. He single-handedly beat our whole team. I told our guys, ‘He's not beating us by himself tonight.' I said it to our kids all week. I'm not letting a guy do that to me too many times.
"We came in with a plan of trapping Velton every time he had the ball. Velton was a little bit tired tonight, but he's such a competitor. He's great for their team. He makes the whole deal go. I love that kid. He's a tough little dude, and he keeps it coming. He wants the heat. He wants the challenge. And he got his team the win tonight.
"We thought we could slow down Velton a little bit to try to give us a better chance, and everybody else on their team stepped up in a way that tells you they are a very, very good team.''
Velton Jones began the game with a "Hey, remember when ... ?" exhibition.
In the space of just 91 seconds he not only drained two long treys but also made the ensuing free throw after being fouled on both shots. Two four-point plays before the game was three minutes old.
"After the first one, I thought, ‘There's no way he's going to do that again,''' Rice said. "Who makes two four-point plays?''
"I was just playing with some confidence and hitting shots,'' Jones said matter-of-factly.
As if that stuff kind of stuff happens every game.
After that, the Monmouth trap on Jones became even tighter. He didn't make another field goal until just 4:18 remained in the game. However, he did beat the trap in other ways.
"When I drove to the lane, they were converging well,'' Jones said. "I couldn't get any shots up, so I had to do something else and find my teammates and they did a good job of being ready to shoot and finish.''
Especially Williams, who dutifully noted his running mate's early accuracy.
"I was thinking, ‘Anything he can do, I can do better,''' Williams said, laughing.
Williams immediately began his three-point barrage.
Just over a minute after Jones' second four-point play, Williams made his first trey.
"It really boosted my confidence,'' Williams said.
What also helped Williams was a rest from much of practice in the first three days of the week on orders from Toole. The coach noticed Williams seemed tired during the game at Quinnipiac last Saturday when Williams went scoreless.
"I thought he looked beat down a little bit, both physically and mentally,'' Toole said. "I think he just needed to re-energize and refresh. We needed him to rest. Even his teammates agreed. They usually complain when guys take one or two reps off in practice. They said, ‘No, C, this is the best thing for you, and the best thing for us is for you to gather your strength again and get back the energy and the legs you need in order for you to score and shoot.'''
Williams spent a lot of his practice time putting up shots on his own.
"Going back to the basics,'' he said. "It really worked (Thursday night). My teammates were finding me. That's all I can (attribute) it to. They really found me.''
Near the end of the first half, the Colonials also repeatedly found Lucky Jones, who zipped in 11 points in the final two and-a-half minutes of the half. He made a an old-fashioned three-point play, buried two three-pointers in a 14-second span and rammed home a slam.
"I always try to go off defense first,'' Jones said. "Once we got a couple stops, I said, ‘Let's see what my offense is looking like.'''
It looked pretty impressive to Rice.
"For a freshman to step up and even take those shots says a lot about Andy's coaching job and the type of player Lucky Jones is,'' Rice said.
The Colonials continued to light it up from three in the second half, with Williams scoring 16 of his 25 points after intermission.
"We didn't really run much set offense tonight,'' Toole said. "They weren't allowing us to do that. Every time we would try and run a set, they would double and now you just have to play basketball. It's something we work on every day in our motion offense of making ourselves available and continuing to change sides of the floor and moving the ball. If we could move the ball faster than they could trap us, we were going to get good shots. And I think when we got the ball to the opposite side of where the trap occurred guys were ready to step up and make shots. We got a lot of open looks. Usually we're not a team that shoots that many threes, but that's what the defense gave us tonight, and we were fortunate to be able to make them.''
However, the Colonials weren't able to shake Monmouth for a while.
Finally, with Monmouth down just 53-48 and 15 minutes left, the Colonials staged a decisive run.
That blitz began with a Williams three. After a basket by Monmouth's Phill Wait, Myers made a three before Williams drained another trey. After neither team scored for almost three minutes,Lijah Thompson made two free throws. Forty seconds later, Myers made a nifty steal and converted that into a layup. Myers helped finish the run with a nice pass to Lawrence Bridges, who slammed home a dunk to give the Colonials a 68-50 lead with 8:48 left.
Much of the crowd of 2,079 spent the remaining time loudly appreciating the Colonials' effort and waiting for popular walk-on Treadwell Lewis to enter the game - which he did with 1:32 left. Forty-six seconds later, Lewis banked in a 14-foot shot for his first two points of the season.
For the fans, it was a neat way to end the evening.
"It was a great crowd,'' Velton Jones said. "They gave us a lot of energy.''
"When you come out and have 600 students all standing, all wearing the same T-shirts, all involved and excited, it's a huge lift for your team,'' Toole said. "It gives us great energy. Our guys feed off that. They get excited by it. I'm happy for our guys because they work very hard and they deserve that kind of support. I think it's something that should be a habit around here, to be honest, especially with the success we've had over the last five years.''
Now the Colonials will head for Wagner and try to add to that success.
Said Lucky Jones: "We just have to (be) better and stronger. Let's get the job done."
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