Things got a little tighter atop the Capital Athletic Conference this past weekend, as the University of Mary Washington men’s basketball team fell to Salisbury University 61-57.
“[Salisbury] had to win, and they performed like they had to win,” UMW head coach Rod Wood said. “We performed as if ‘ehh, we’ll be okay.’ When we got down big [late in the game], you saw the switch go on, but it was too little, too late.”
The loss was the first home defeat the Eagles have suffered since their season opener against Christopher Newport University, and it trimmed their lead for first place in the conference down to just half a game over St. Mary’s College.
The key to the game was the visiting Sea Gulls’ ability to slow down the tempo and force UMW out of their comfort zone. Eagles’ head coach Rod Wood did all he could to try and speed up the pace, even switching to a full court press, but Salisbury remained disciplined in slowing things down and not allowing the Eagles to play to their strength.
“It’s real frustrating because we’re supposed to control the tempo,” sophomore guard Bradley Riester said.
“That’s one of our main goals every night. We want to get teams playing our way, we don’t want to change our style for them, and we didn’t do that. We’re not as effective when we have to play like [we did Saturday].”
Unable to run out on fast breaks, the UMW offense struggled in the half court. The Eagles shot just 25 percent from the field in the first half and dug themselves into a 29–21 hole as they walked into the locker room at halftime.
The Sea Gulls extended their lead to 16 points out of the intermission, and with just under 14 minutes to play in the second half, Salisbury was comfortably ahead 45–30. But that’s when Mary Washington went on their run. The Eagles finally got the Sea Gulls to rush and the increased tempo resulted in a 21–8 stretch over a nearly 13-minute span that allowed UMW to trim the deficit to just two points with under a minute to play.
Yet the comeback effort fell short, as Salisbury knocked down eight of their 10 free throw attempts in the final minute to hold on for the upset victory over the conference’s top team.
Riester led the Eagles with 12 points off the bench, while freshman Taylor Johnson chipped in with 11 points and six rebounds in his first career start. Trent Epps led the Sea Gulls with his 15-point, 12-rebound effort, while junior Dylan Robeson provided a spark off the bench for Salisbury, connecting on three of the Sea Gulls four 3-pointers.
This game continued a trend of nail biters for the Eagles, as the last four men’s basketball games have been decided by a total of 10 points, with UMW going 2-2 in that span.
“All of our games are going to be close [from now on],” Wood said. “Why? Because teams aren’t going to allow us to do what we did the first time through.”
With opponents making a concerted effort to force the Eagles to be a half court team, Wood told me he has some adjustments of his own that he plans to implement to help give his team the upper hand again.
The full court press Mary Washington unveiled last Saturday for just the second time this season is something that Wood said he hopes to use a lot going forward. The Eagles have been working on the scheme for over a month now, and the goal is that it will allow UMW to control the pace even while on defense.
“I’m hoping we can use the press for 40 minutes,” Wood said. “We’ll try and play it consistently the entire game, and that’s not just for this year, but for next year as well.”
The other tweak would come in the half court offense, where Wood says he wants to get freshman Sean Armstrong more involved in pick-and-roll situations with sophomore point guard Walt Smith.
“It is something that we need to incorporate more,” Wood said. “We’ll certainly work on it more in the offseason and you’ll see that as a bigger part of the offense next year, but I’d like to be able to utilize that more this year as well.”
The Eagles (15–6, 10–2) were back in action last night against Hood College, but the game ended too late for results to be included in this issue. A tough stretch is ahead, as counting last night three of the final four games are road bouts, but Riester says the Eagles know they can’t afford any more hiccups.
“We want to finish first, get a bye and get home court advantage [for the conference tournament], so we know we can’t lose any more games,” Riester said.