AU men’s basketball defeats Western Illinois in first home win
Sophomore Delante Jones led the team with 19 points, while freshman Sa’eed Nelson added 12
After a game of back-and-forth basketball, missed free throws and low scoring percentages, AU’s 57-50 win against Western Illinois on Tuesday night proved to be a game of firsts. For the first time in program history, the Eagles took on an opponent from the Summit League conference and recorded a win for the first time this season.
Freshman guard Sa’eed Nelson led the Eagles in playing time, recording 40 minutes for the third consecutive game, while sophomore guard Delante Jones scored a team-high 19 points in 37 minutes. The two players combined for five assists, six steals and ten rebounds, and head coach Mike Brennan credited the athletes for their ability to listen, respond to game play calls and work for each other.
“The way we play, we sort of give these guys a lot of freedom to figure things out on their own,” Brennan said. “One thing we talked about was getting some drives. We did that earlier, and then they took that away and we stopped scoring. We needed a longer timeout to talk about the next thing, but like I said they listen, they work hard and they implement what you’re asking for.”
Both teams missed their first three shots of the game, but Nelson hit AU’s first layup and the first point of the game to bring a wave of momentum to the Eagles. Jones and sophomore forward James Washington followed with layups of their own to give the Eagles an early 8-0 lead, an advantage, but one that would quickly disappear. With eight minutes to play in the half, the Illinois Leathernecks rallied and pulled ahead by a point, only to expand on their lead and end the first half ahead by nine.
Western Illinois entered the game against AU also searching for their first Division I win of the season, and while the Leathernecks held a 2-4 record prior to the game against AU, both of their wins came against Division II and Division III teams. AU, who took on Maryland and Texas A&M earlier this year, struggled to gain footing against the Leathernecks, but the Eagles started to find their rhythm as the game progressed.
Western Illinois’ leading scorer, senior guard Garrett Covington, managed 11 points in the first half, but AU’s defensive efforts reduced that number to nine in the second half, bringing Covington’s total to just less than his season average of 21.3 points per game.
After a lackluster first half, the Eagles came out with speed and fury in the second half, more than doubling their point total. They improved their free throw percentage by 63.2 percent, increased their field goal percentage by 21.4 percent and doubled their three-point total. Free throws, a weak spot for the Eagles in the first half, proved critical in the final minutes of the game as AU continued to find itself on the line as a result of consistent fouling from Western Illinois.
Just one minute into the second half with AU down by eight, Western Illinois committed a technical foul and sent Washington to the line for two shots, both of which he made. The Eagles rode Washington’s momentum, tying the game with 16 minutes to play and pulling ahead on a Washington three-point jump shot one minute later.
Western Illinois kept the score within five for the remainder of the game, regaining and losing the lead as fast as the players could run down the court, but foul trouble ultimately cost them the game. AU senior forward Leon Tolksdorf scored two free throws with 25 seconds left to put his team ahead by three, and another Western Illinois foul put Jones on the line for two shots as well, both of which he made. Nelson sealed the deal when he hit another free throw and Charlie Jones added a final basket with two seconds to play to help the Eagles finish off the Leathernecks.
“I was happy we were getting fouled,” Brennan said. “We used to be a team that would shoot four or five free throws a game, so the fact that we are being aggressive and actually getting ourselves to the line is a good thing, we’ll work on that.”
Senior Charlie Jones emerged as a leader on the court in the second half as well, instructing his teammates, bringing the ball down the court and setting up plays under Brennan’s Princeton offense.
“It takes some time to figure that stuff out,” Brennan said in regards to the team’s improved second half performance. “I thought we defended in the first half to keep us in it, it took some time to float out some stuff.”
With a starting lineup that includes two freshman, two sophomores and a senior, the Eagles brought a young squad to the court, but by the end of the game the team played with speed and energy. Nelson’s playing style, which has helped him earn a spot atop the conference in points among freshman, bears a strong resemblance to former AU standpoint Darius “Pee-Wee” Gardner (Class of 2015), and the combination of Nelson and 6-10 freshman Mark Gasperini sets the Eagles up well for the 2016-2017 season and beyond.
The team will take on local competitor Howard University on December 3, and much of the team’s success will depend on the ability of young players to work together and connect with one another. Delante Jones, who earned Patriot League Rookie of the Year last year and leads the team in three-point field goals this year, said his personal goal each game, regardless of the opponent, is to do what the team needs him to do.
“I just try to do what I need, my defense, passing, it’s something that I need to do, just gotta help out,” Jones said.