Wagner 69, Bryant 66: Pyrrhic Victory For Seahawks?

There was no college basketball 2,300 years ago (as far as you know), but there were talented coaches, eh, commanders like Pyrrhus of Epicus, who figured taking down this new upstart power in Italy called Rome would be difficult, but certainly not impossible.

In the end, he did push the Romans back with victory in a couple of battles, but they were bloody, costly fights that left his army somewhat demoralized both physically and mentally. Pyrrhus then cemented his legacy with one of the most repeated quotes of all-time: “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined.”

Wagner defeated Bryant Thursday night 69-66 at the Spiro Center, its seventh win in eight games, assuring the Seahawks a home game in next week’s NEC quarterfinals. They are certainly among the favorites in an extremely balanced league after falling in the finals last season.

But just 3:30 into Thursday’s game, senior Mike Aaman – who has been through and largely overcome battles with concussions to become an integral part of Wagner’s title bid – drove to the basket, but never got there, falling to the ground while holding his knee. He did not put any weight on it and did not return. He’ll be re-evaluated Friday, and everyone (even Bryant seemed momentarily shaken by the injury) hopes for the best, but the signs did not point to a quick recovery.

So for Wagner (15-12, 11-6), who has played without Romone Saunders all season, was Thursday a Pyrrhic victory if Aaman is out for the NEC Tournament? Possibly, but one of the Seahawks’ biggest strengths has been its depth. Aaman’s injury allowed 6’8” senior Greg Senat 21 minutes, his most time on the court in more than two years. His stats (5 pts., 5 rebs.) weren’t eye-popping, but he held his own and helped lead Wagner’s comeback from 13 down early in the second half.

“We have to use our big guys like Greg Senat and A.J. Sumbry to relieve pressure off our guards,” Wagner coach Bashir Mason said. “They were sticking to our guards like glue, then we threw the ball in the post and got some good looks down there. Now it opened things up for the guards.”

So, yes, things will probably be much more difficult next week without Aaman (if he is indeed out), but surely not impossible.

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What else did we learn on Staten Island Thursday night?:

1) Energy, energy, energy

The Spiro Center was nearly sold out, but it took Wagner (perhaps with the Aaman injury playing a role) a long time to get started, trailing for most of the first half, a deficit that grew to 44-31 when Nisre Zouzoua hit a couple of shots just after halftime.

Wagner’s shooting numbers are poor (47.3 eFG% for 301st and 31.7% three-point shooting for 310th nationally) and they turn the ball over a lot (21.9%, 330th), but they do one thing extremely well: offensive rebounding, currently at 39.6%, 3rd nationally (behind North Carolina and Kent St.). However, they had just 4 early in the second half (at 15.4%) before they began to overwhelm Bryant, finishing with 14 (33.3%).

“I told my guys on film Bryant doesn’t come across as this big, strong, physical team and their defensive numbers and rebounding numbers aren’t like ours, but they’re a tough, gritty team, and it’s very subtle,” Mason said. “I think when we came of the gate, and Bryant was getting to the basket and they were bumping us, we were a little off-guard. But we made the adjustment to the physicality and that helped us.”

The Seahawks also were much better on defense the rest of the way, much more energetic and Bryant’s good looks at the basket became fewer and fewer, even for Zouzoua. They’ll probably need it for 40 minutes at some point next week.

“I knew our defense was locked in in the second half and when we’re defending and rebounding like that, a short little run for us, 4-0 or 5-0 run, can feel like a 10-0 run to the other team because they haven’t scored in so long,” Mason said. “That can take the life out of them. When we tied the game and finally took the lead, I did see a little bit of a difference in those guys. Our guys just knew we had to manage it from there.”

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2) Bryant snakebitten a bit

Bryant (11-19, 8-9) will finish at .500 in the NEC if it can beat Central Connecticut at home Saturday, which are some decent strides for an extremely young team that missed the NEC Tournament last season, but it could be much better. They have three overtime losses in conference and this was their second defeat by three points or loss.

It does bode well for next season with Zouzoua entering as a possible NEC Player of the Year candidate and Ikenna Ndugba (who had 10 rebounds Thursday) and Adam Grant being a year older after having solid freshman years. They do have to improve their defense, especially in the paint, but there are many positive signs for 2017-18, and they will likely not be an easy out no matter where they end up next Wednesday.

“We’re a young team that’s gotten better. I think we have a few of the better young players in the league in our program,” Bryant coach Tim O’Shea said. “Ikenna (Ndugba) is a great rebounder for a guard (10 rebounds Thursday). I think we’ve made a ton of progress and it gives me a ton of optimism going forward, as long as everyone can stay healthy, of course.”

3) Small margins

Bryant trailed 67-66 with time running out when Zouzoua took the ball to the basket and scored over Corey Henson to give the Bulldogs the lead and perhaps the game … only to have it (somewhat belatedly) called an offensive foul.

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The normally composed O’Shea was running up and down the Bryant sideline in protest, and to be fair to the officials, it’s the type of call that’s extremely tough to judge in real-time. But it may be the difference in celebration or agony in March, too.

“I thought we took a few shots that weren’t the best and that gave them some momentum, but they generated some energy with those second chances,” O’Shea said. “That was a tough call on Zouzoua late, too. I’ll have to look at it. But it shows how many close games we’ve played this season. I mean, pick a game, and it’s a play here or a play there that tips it one way or the other.”

Game on from Staten Island! #TMMLegacy

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