Wagner Wins NEC Opener Over Monmouth

On a night when so many things reminded fans across the NEC that conference play had started and this isn’t last year’s league, two things were stunningly familiar. Wagner played defense and Wagner won at home.

As Bryant won at Robert Morris and a depleted LIU team fell at Sacred Heart, the Seahawks tenuously, but confidently finished off Monmouth 60-56 to move to 1-0 in a brand new season of NEC play.

“In conference play protecting the home court is key,” said Josh Thompson, who played a team-high 33 minutes for Wagner. “You have to protect the home court … You don’t want to have to start worrying or pressuring yourself to win on the road because it’s already tough as players to go play in someone else’s gym and pick up a win.”

Even at the Spiro Center it wasn’t easy. Wagner was playing without star guard Latif Rivers, who was suspended for the game due to an incident in the NEC tournament semifinals a year ago, and Jonathon Williams came off the bench after having only practiced for the past three days.

But Wagner got strong performances from sophomores Marcus Burton and Mario Moody and the defense was its usual stellar self in holding the Hawks to just 56 points.

Burton’s game was carefully aggressive. He had to play a good number of minutes at the point guard position in the first half due to foul trouble for Kenny Ortiz and took advantage of them. Burton had nine points and four assists in 17 first half minutes and finished with 15 points.

“I felt like I had to be more aggressive with those guys out,” said Burton about his play in the first half when Ortiz and Rivers were on the bench. “Coach is always stressing to be aggressive, even with those guys in. You just have to keep attacking.”

Moody scored 12 points and grabbed nine rebounds. Three of his four field goals came on a fascinating array of dunks that showed off Moody’s various athletic gifts. He had a reverse two-handed jam in transition and threw down a one-handed dunk on an inbounds.

Despite those contributions, the offense moved in fits and spurts. Wagner managed to build a 15-point lead with 9:28 remaining, but then the offense fizzled out. The Seahawks couldn’t get anything going. In fact, Wagner’s last basket from the field was Eric Fanning’s layup with 8:23 remaining in the game. From there Mason’s squad patched together enough offense with free throws and buckled down on defense.

“I never thought the game was over,” Mason said about Monmouth’s resolve down the stretch. “I know those guys play extremely hard from start to finish. It’s in their nature in the way they defend.”

It was defense that cemented the win in the end for Wagner. Monmouth had the ball down two with 25 seconds remaining, but Burton stole the ball and raced downcourt before getting fouled. Those were two of Wagner’s 22 points off turnovers, the lifeblood of this offense.

In the end that was enough. For the sixth time this season the Seahawks found a way to win when leading with five minutes left. Sometimes it takes overtime. Sometimes it takes one clutch play, but Wagner seems to always find a way to get it done.

“I’ve coached more games this year and been praying on the sideline,” Mason said. “I think today I felt hair dropping out of my head.”

Things may change, but thanks to its defense Wagner should be right near the top of the NEC again.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s