After sweeping a pair of Patriot League home games this weekend, the AU Men’s Basketball team isn’t about to get ahead of itself.
Having come into the weekend tied for third in the PL, the Eagles are now tied for second with Bucknell, with PL leader Holy Cross coming to D.C. Sunday. The Eagles (12-7, 5-2 PL) dismissed Colgate (8-12, 3-4), 78-59, on Sunday, avoiding a hangover after Friday’s victory over then-PL leader Bucknell (14-6, 5-2), 68-59, in a highly anticipated match-up.
But AU is reluctant to play up simply meeting preseason expectations.
“We can’t make too much of it. Had we lost, the negative ramifications would’ve been more significant,” AU head coach Jeff Jones said. “If we want to stay in touch with the top spots, we’ve got to keep pace. ... It was a very good weekend for us, but we’ve got to regroup.”
After a devastating 80-56 loss to Holy Cross on Jan. 24, that’s exactly what AU did.
Riding offensive explosions at the beginning of each half, the AU Men’s Basketball team extinguished Bucknell’s 11-game win streak before a season-high crowd of 2,391 at Bender Arena.
Bucknell would go on to lose a shocker at Navy, 66-62, on Sunday. Meanwhile, Holy Cross (15-5, 6-1) picked up road wins at Lehigh on Sunday, 58-56, and Lafayette on Friday, 74-57.
Early on, AU suffocated Bucknell, forcing seven Bison turnovers in the first 5:27, and jumping out to a 33-14 lead with 6:12 to play in the first half.
Bucknell recovered momentarily to hold AU to four points for the rest of the half, but after guard Charles Lee missed a 3-pointer with time expiring, the Bison still trailed by double digits at halftime, 37-26.
AU reclaimed momentum in the second half, leaping out to its largest lead, 54-34, when senior forward Patrick Okpwae slammed a thunderous dunk with 8:11 to play, off a transition feed from senior swingman Jason Thomas.
AU struggled after that, hitting only one field goal in the rest of regulation as Bucknell began to pressure the full court. But for Bucknell, the hole was too deep.
“Instead of being down by eight or 10, we were down by ,” said Bison assistant Nathan Davis, who filled in for head coach Pat Flannery, who is on a medical leave of absence. “That was definitely a turning point, and it ended up being the nail in the coffin.”
Thomas led all scorers with 18 points. He could’ve had more, but he missed six of eight free-throw attempts in the final two minutes, while the Bison closed to within six. Senior forwards Matej Cresnik and Raimondas Petrauskas added 13 and 10 points, respectively.
But the most glaring statistic may have been sophmore guard Andre Ingram’s point total - or lack thereof. Ingram, AU’s leading scorer this season averaging nearly 16 points per game, couldn’t have been colder, finishing with four points.
“Usually, when we need to make some shots, Andre Ingram factors into the equation,” Jones said. “The fact that we were able to win, with Andre shooting 1 of 13 [from the floor], and with us turning the ball over 20 times ... I wouldn’t have predicted a win.”
But Bucknell, helped by an early start, matched AU for turnovers. And the Eagles slaughtered the Bison in points off turnovers, 28-9. Ingram played a key role in that department; swiping four of the Eagles’ 10 steals.
Bucknell’s Lee scored 16, with John Griffin adding 13 off the bench. AU largely neutralized 6-foot-11 center Chris McNaughton, who finished with 11 points but did not dominate a smaller AU frontcourt. Sharpshooter Kevin Bettencourt rarely evaded AU’s defensive pressure, and shot just 1-8 en route to just seven total points.
The Eagles out-rebounded the Bison 41-29, a theme that would carry over into Sunday’s Colgate encounter.
AU battled foul trouble all game long, which resulted in a carousel of substitutions that may have accounted for the loss of its offensive rhythm toward the end of each half. No Eagles fouled out, but Petrauskas, Ingram, Okpwae, and freshman point guard Linas Lekavicius all finished with four personals.
While they all survived regulation without disqualification, after the win, Okpwae missed curfew, according to a statement released by the AU Athletic Department. As a result, Jones suspended Okpwae indefinitely, starting with Sunday’s game, though Okpwae sat on the bench dressed in his warm ups and uniform.
Without Okpwae, who at 6-foot-6 accounts for much of AU’s interior athleticism, if not size, senior forward Raimondas Petrauskas stepped forward, scoring a season-high 22 points and logging a season-high 31 minutes while leading AU’s domination of Colgate’s big men.
“It was the same [as any game],” Petrauskas said nonchalantly. “I knew I was going to get more minutes. But I just did what I was supposed to do.”
Thomas surpassed his Friday mark by scoring 19 points, and Ingram ended his cold streak, scoring 16.
“We’re moving the ball well,” Thomas said of AU’s offense. “I’m not trying to force anything. We’re cutting well, and getting a lot of guys open.”
Thomas added that “if I want to get easy buckets” the way to do that “is to rebound and run the floor.”
After a clinical first-half performance, which ended with AU ahead, 41-28, the Raiders whittled the deficit to two, 41-39, riding eight quick second-half points from guard Alvin Reed. But Reed, Colgate’s leading scorer this year, who started Sunday on the bench because of disciplinary reasons, committed his fourth foul with 15:35 to go in the game, and had to return to the bench.
“I’ve got to admit, I didn’t know he got four fouls,” Jones said. “I was busy worrying about our guys.”
But Jones’ team would be fine.
Down five, a quick Colgate 3-pointer from forward Andrew Zidar cut the 44-42, but the Raiders would soon lose their rhythm while AU did not. Soon after, two free throws from Cresnik, an inside bucket from Petrauskas, and a 3-pointer from Thomas pushed the lead to 62-48.
For Colgate, Jon Simon led Colgate with 19 points. Reed finished with 11, all scored in the second half. Zidar and guard Kyle Roemer added 10 apiece.
The Eagles converted their last six foul shots during a 10-0 run over the last 2:01 of the game.
With Okpwae’s absence, AU’s depleted frontcourt rose to the occasion - literally - out-rebounding the Raiders 39-21, and outscoring them in the paint 36-20.
“We’re better as a team if we’re attacking more on the glass,” Thomas said. “Instead of letting the next man get the ball we took the attitude, ‘no, I’ll get the ball.’”
Though Jones didn’t know whether Okpwae’s absence motivated his team, he didn’t rule it out.
“I don’t know how it affected them,” he said. “But I know our guys weren’t feeling sorry for themselves. They just kind of put their arms around one another, and figured out a way to do it.”