Despite a 1-10 record in non-conference play, Sacred Heart is optimistic heading into NEC play.
The Pioneers appeared poised for a successful 2015-16 campaign when they dispatched in-state rival Quinnipiac 76-64 in their season-opener in the Connecticut 6. However, a 10 game losing streak followed, capped by an 80-73 loss at Hofstra Monday evening.
Though their record fails to inspire confidence, the Pioneers have had their fair share of close calls. Three of their losses came by four points or less, including their only home game of the season against Lafayette.
While playing away from home for 10 of their 11 games, Sacred Heart’s largest losses have come against high-major competition including a UConn team which owns wins over Michigan and Ohio State, and a 12-1 Northwestern squad whose only loss of the year came against North Carolina. Add in a 22 point loss to Ivy League favorite Yale and you understand why Anthony Latina’s team is grateful to begin taking on NEC competition.
“I think we’re going to be ready for the league,” Latina said after falling to Hofstra. “We’ve lost four or five games that could have gone either way. Say we had won half of those, with only one home game, people would probably be talking a lot more positively about us. The beauty of it is we haven’t played a league game yet.”
It did seem as though Sacred Heart would pull the upset at Hofstra Monday night as they led for over half the game and carried a lead into the final six minutes. A victory over the CAA favorites would have been redemption for a road loss to Towson, who have emerged as one of a slew of competitors in a CAA ranked ninth among all conferences by KenPom.
The Pioneers’ charge against the Pride was led by star guard Cane Broome, who poured in 25 points for the second straight game. Hofstra had no answer for Broome until midway through the second half. Despite gashing the Pride’s defense for most of the game, Broome was held scoreless for the final 9:38 of regulation.
“He missed some shots that he was making in the first half,” Latina said of Broome. “He missed some layups, and he made some tough shots in the first half that he missed in the second half, but they were keying on him too and really collapsing on him, so you have to give them credit as well. He still had 25, which is pretty good. The last few games he was kind of up and down a little bit, but he’s really playing like the all-league player he’s capable of being.”
Sacred Heart got unexpected support on Monday from forward Eyimofe Edukugho. The redshirt senior poured in a career high 17 points against the Pride, his only double-digit effort since the Pioneers’ lone win in their season-opener where he scored 11. If his production continues, Edukugho could be a replacement for junior De’von Barnett, who is sitting out this season after sustaining a shoulder injury in the offseason.
“Hopefully he’s a guy that maybe we can start using a little more,” Latina said of Edukugho. “He’s been a little up and down in practice, but he can score and he’s really starting to understand the defense better. You will see him get some minutes in the upcoming games, especially in our league where undersized forwards have some success. He’ll rebound and play physically, so he’ll get a chance.”
Latina’s squad kicks off league play in a familiar place: on the road. The Pioneers begin NEC play with the Pennsylvania road trip, taking on Robert Morris on January 2 before turning back to face St. Francis University two days later.
“Because we need more away games,” Latina joked about starting with the trip. “Who knows, maybe you get a couple out there. A split would be nice.”
Despite being defending conference champions, Robert Morris’ two wins in the non-conference slate have come against teams who own a combined 1-22 record against DI competition. The Colonials earned a three-point win over a winless Mississippi Valley State squad and took down Lehigh by two points at home despite the Mountain Hawks being just 1-9 against DI teams.
This first encounter between teams that struggled in their non-conference schedules appears a perfect way to get NEC play started. Just don’t count the Pioneers out.
Vincent Simone covers Quinnipiac, the MAAC, and Hofstra among others for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.