In stunningly swift fashion a special Wagner season that had taken months to build came to a crashing end on Sunday afternoon against Robert Morris at the Spiro Sports Center in the NEC semifinals. Robert Morris’ Velton Jones controlled play and led the Colonials to a 71-64 win.
The game was a story of two halves. In the first the officials dominated play, calling 29 personal fouls. Both teams struggled offensively, but Wagner came out of the first 20 minutes with a 31-29 lead on its home court.
But at the opening of the second half it all disappeared. RMU scored 10 of the first 11 points of the second half to build an eight-point lead, 40-32, and never looked back, pushing the lead to as many as nine and withstanding a late Wagner charge for the victory.
“We’ve been a great start of second half team all year,” said Wagner head coach Dan Hurley. “We weren’t tonight. We had some opportunities for some finishes around the basket. We could’ve maintained control of the game. We didn’t make the plays. They made the plays.”
Jones was the best player on the court. Robert Morris’ junior point guard 25 points on 5-10 shooting and 14-16 from the free throw line. He picked up three fouls in the first half, but managed to avoid picking up his fourth until 1:24 remained in the game. It was a foul he drew against Kenneth Ortiz with 1:03 remaining, the shot clock expiring and the Colonials hanging onto a three-point lead that was the biggest play of the game. He calmly knocked down all three free throws and RMU finished out the game.
For Wagner it was the culmination of two seasons of hard work under Hurley coming to their first crest. The Seahawks finish with a record of 25-6 (15-3), a place no one could’ve imagined them being two seasons ago.
“Coach came in here with a style two years ago and we bought it right away,” said senior Tyler Murray. “To make a such transition, it’s incredible.”
Part of the resurgence has been the leadership and play of Murray. He scored 15 points on 6-11 shooting in 26 minutes on Saturday before fouling out. Sophomore Latif Rivers led the way with 18 points, most of them coming on 11-12 shooting from the line.
Unfortunately, Wagner didn’t have the post play to complement those two against Robert Morris’ talented trio of Mike McFadden, Lijah Thompson and Russell Johnson. Thompson in particular helped RMU dominate on the boards with eight offensive rebounds. The Colonials grabbed 21 offensive rebounds and won the overall rebounding battle 45-30. If Thompson had been able to make more of his 10 point-blank shots RMU would’ve had an even bigger cushion to work with.
The Colonials also displayed the maturity that comes with being in this situation multiple times in the last four seasons. As RMU struggled with fouls in the first half they didn’t let the game get away. In the second Andrew Toole expertly shuffled his lineup. The Colonials committed 30 fouls in the game, but not one player fouled out. Six players ended up with four fouls.
“I think [the experience] helps us a lot,” Jones said. “We’ve played in big games like this throughout our years here. I think that helped us a lot to be able to finish out the game and be composed even though they made a run at the end.”
On the other side the youthful Seahawks often forced things that weren’t there in transition. Wagner had just four fast break points off 12 RMU turnovers and shot 27-40 from the line. It’s those types of things that Hurley will have to continue to work on.
“Sometimes you want it so badly, you get in your own way,” Hurley said. “It’s tough to take, but you’re just so proud of who these guys are.”
Hopefully Wagner will get a bid to the NIT. The Seahawks, with road wins over Pittsburgh, Princeton and Penn and just one bad loss (at Central Connecticut) certainly deserve to be considered. Hurley hopes his team will get that chance.
“We hope for the opportunity to play in [the NIT] because of everything that we’ve achieved throughout the year,” Hurley said. “I think we’ve earned it. Hopefully the committee feels the same way.”
It’ll be another opportunity build towards what looks like a bright future.