Three Thoughts: Sacred Heart 80, Robert Morris 76

We all want to think our hard work will pay off in whatever we do, maybe it’s a promotion, maybe it’s just benching more or running a faster 5K. The zero-sum game of team athletics doesn’t always lend itself to linear growth, however. To climb the ladder, you must push someone else down a rung.

Coming off a dreadful 5-26 (2-14 NEC) campaign last season, Sacred Heart said and seemed to do all the right things in the offseason, then finished 6-7 in non-conference play, with most of those seven being extremely competitive. But then the Pioneers started NEC play 1-5 and needed overtime to beat Fairleigh Dickinson at home.

However, then things started to turn. A sweep of Bryant was sprinkled into a 5-3 stretch that saw Sacred Heart on the verge of qualifying for the NEC Tournament for the first time in three seasons and just the second time in five years. The Pioneers made it official by beating Robert Morris for the first time in seven tries, 80-76, at the Pitt Center Thursday night. The Colonials were without Lucky Jones for the second straight game (violation of team rules), but Sacred Heart will take it.

A kid like Tevin Falzon will most certainly take it. It’s hard to fathom but Falzon, a junior, has never played in a conference tournament game. Thursday – after not scoring and getting just three rebounds in nine minutes in the first meeting against Robert Morris – scored 13 points and destroyed his previous career high in rebounds (13) with 18, 12 of which came in the first half.

“It’s definitely a lot more fun this year,” Falzon said.

It’s also plenty more enjoyable for a veteran like Evan Kelley, who’s in his fifth year with the Sacred Heart program. Kelley could have let a somewhat embarrassing second-half missed dunk derail his evening but he didn’t, finishing with 18 points, seven rebounds, and his team’s seventh NEC victory.

“The hard work from last year through the summer, we had a hard summer,” Kelley said. “The guys worked really hard. Preseason, we had a hard preseason and it just carried over, all those steps and the building blocks are starting to fall into place and now you’re seeing the end result.”

Here are my three thoughts from an extremely entertaining game at the Pitt Center:

1. This wasn’t a surprise – On pure name value based on past results, Robert Morris is supposed to beat Sacred Heart. Even based on form maybe a month ago. But without Lucky Jones, this was a game the Pioneers (13-15, 7-8) probably should have won. And they did. The Colonials (13-14, 9-6) battled from start to finish and got a hurculean effort with a career-high 31 points from Rodney Pryor, but top to bottom, Sacred Heart was the better team on this night.

“I think sometimes, especially where we came from last year, you have to learn,” Sacred Heart coach Anthony Latina said. “This year, we’ve been in every game with the exception of Ohio State. Sometimes you have to go through some losses and study why we lost those games. And now, we’re 4-1 in our last five, and three of those wins, including this one, were one-possession games with two minutes to go. We are starting to learn how to win and we’re winning in different ways. We certainly didn’t win defensively tonight.”

2. Defense-less Robert Morris – Playing without their top defensive rebounder (among other things) Lucky Jones didn’t help, but the Colonials’ defense in the second half, well it was terrible, and not for the the first time this season, much to the consternation of Andy Toole.

“It’s been us all year,” Toole said. “Our second half defense has not been strong enough. I don’t know if we relax a little bit after the first half (Sacred Heart had 29 points on 0.82 ppp in the first half, 51 points on 1.34 ppp in the second). All of the sudden we seem to have it figured out and then we say OK and we stop. We can’t sustain our effort on the defensive side of the floor. In years past, we’ve come up with those stops and defensive rebounds late in the game that we didn’t come up with tonight.”

Although no one was saying, Robert Morris should get Jones back before the end of the season and still has a chance to get the second seed in the NEC Tournament despite six conference losses if it can win its last three games (which includes at Bryant Saturday). But even Toole admits that’s a big if right now. By the way, the last time the Colonials lost more than six NEC games in one season was 2006-07.

”You just have to keep working, that’s all,” Toole said. “I think we have some talented guys, we just have to really understand what wins. We talked in the beginning of the year about when you go on the road you have to defend, you have to rebound, you have to take care of the ball. They shoot 53% in the second half, they get 18 rebounds, and we turn the ball over 20 times. And you lose by four. We clearly didn’t do any of those things and we wonder why we didn’t win. We’ll keep talking about it, keep harping on it, and hopefully at some point in time, the light bulb goes off. But you never stop trying until people tell you you can’t anymore.”

3. Bizarre statistics – Andy Toole kind of got most of them in the quote there, but this was a strange game in a good NEC way. First of all, neither team ever had a lead bigger than six (Robert Morris midway through the first half), while Robert Morris finished with a 27.8% turnover rate (and a 19.4% SHU steal rate) and Sacred Heart chimed in with a more modest 20.8%, one that was much lower than it was at the midway point of the second half. Led by Falzon’s nine, the Pioneers put up a 45.0% offensive rebounding rate.

Perhaps most importantly for Sacred Heart, it was 18-23 (78.3%) at the free throw line for the nation’s 319th best (64.0% even adjusted after Thursday’s game).

“I’m happy for our seniors because they’ve taken some lumps for a long time,” Latina said.

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