Mens Hoops rally to defeat Holy Cross
After starting the first game of the year back in November against Maryland, AU junior forward Matej Cresnik was demoted to the role of first, second or third player off the bench.
But this weekend, head coach Jeff Jones gave Cresnik two more starts, against Holy Cross on Sunday and Colgate last Friday. The Slovenian responded, shooting a combined 13-of-17 in those games to lead AU Men's Basketball to two nail-biting road wins - a 62-59 victory at Holy Cross and a 74-71 win at Colgate. Cresnik scored 15 against the Crusaders and 17 against the Raiders.
The two wins push the Eagles to 4-1 in the Patriot League, with league-leading Lafayette coming to AU on Friday night. The victories also mark the first time since the 1994-1995 season that AU has started 3-0 in conference away games.
Sunday, Cresnik's effort led the Eagles as they won their first-ever game at Holy Cross, while his offensive efficiency (6-of-9 shooting) was one of the few exceptions in a game where baskets were scarce. AU shot 40 percent from the floor while Holy Cross shot 36 percent, putting a premium on rebounding as well as scoring.
"This is the type of game that, in the past, Holy Cross always won," Jones said. "Every rebound seemed like a scrum. It was about gutting it out and winning ugly, and they've had our number in these types of games."
Cresnik, who is sometimes criticized for lack of physicality, helped turn that tide by playing more physically than normal and grabbing five rebounds, four coming on the defensive end of the floor.
"Matej had maybe his best game of the year," Jones said, "and maybe of his career - not because he scored a lot of points, but because he battled inside."
AU trailed by as many as 10 points in the first half, but pulled back to within six at 36-30 going into halftime. In the first half, AU played a mix of man and zone defense, which Jones said gave Holy Cross too many open shots. In the second half, Jones switched to all zone, and, in the closing portion of the game, a 3-2 zone that shut down the Crusaders' outside game.
The result was obvious. The Eagles held the Crusaders without a field goal for over 11 minutes down the stretch, from 12:06 of the second half to the 34-second mark.
"We switched up to the three-two, and that bothered them," Jones said afterward. "On the open shots that they were getting and making in the first half, they had a hand in their face."
Meanwhile, on offense late senior point guard Andres Rodriguez made clutch free throws from the line, something he desperately struggled with at Colgate two nights earlier. Rodriguez finished with 14 points - 10 of those coming on 13 foul-shot attempts - and six assists.
AU dominated the interior, with senior forward Jernavis Draughn and junior forwards Raimondas Petrauskas and Patrick Okpwae all contributing to a 28-12 advantage in points in the paint. Draughn also led all rebounders with seven.
"The handful of open looks we got [on the outside], we couldn't get to go down," Jones said. "When you see how we outscored them in the paint, that's a significant stat."
For Holy Cross, guards Greg Kinsey and Jave Meade each scored 14 points, with Meade also leading all players in assists with seven. AU leaves Worcester with five days to prepare for Lafayette on Friday night, which perhaps is the biggest game to be played at AU since the 2002 PL championship, a 58-54 loss to Holy Cross. Lehigh, 4-1 in the PL after a 111-104 overtime loss to Lafayette, sits ready to pass the Eagles should they lose. For all PL teams, the most important games come in the PL tournament in March, but the magnitude of Friday's clash is not lost on Jones.
"It's a huge game from my perspective," Jones said. "Lafayette is very good, and is by far the most experienced team in the league. We could get at least a piece of first place if we win. I hope we have a great turnout from the student body to give us the home-court advantage that we need."
AU held on for a 74-71 victory at Colgate on Friday night behind Cresnik's 17-point effort, despite only going 8 of 18 from the free-throw line, including several misses down the stretch.
Ironically, big men Cresnik and Petrauskas were the only two players not to miss foul shots, going 2 of 2 and 3 of 3 respectively. But more impressively, Cresnik only missed one shot from the floor, shooting 7 for 8 on the night.
"It feels good, it's always good to win," Cresnik told reporters afterward. "We played hard and we won, that's what matters."
In almost typical form, the Eagles started very well, opening up a 40-26 lead late in the first half via a 13-3 run keyed by baskets from five different players. But in nearly as typical fashion, AU let the Raiders climb back into the game in the second half, although never yielding the lead. The most worrying stretch came in the final 1:32, when AU, down 69-64, had three separate one-and-one opportunities to extend the lead, all through Rodriguez. The usually clutch point guard missed the front end of all three, but escaped punishment from Colgate, which was held scoreless in its next three possessions.
Colgate eventually closed the lead to 73-71 on a three-pointer from guard Mark Linebaugh, but it came with only four seconds remaining in the game. Rodriguez was again fouled, and he missed his fourth and fifth consecutive foul shots but was rescued by an offensive rebound from Draughn.
Draughn was then fouled, and converted one of two shots with only one second remaining.
Freshman guard Linas Lekavicius was AU's second-highest scorer, notching 13 points coming off the bench. For Colgate, Linebaugh led with 21 points, Kendall Chones added 16, Alvin Reed 14 and Andrew Zidar 10, all in starting roles.
In an exceptionally clean game, AU only committed five turnovers to Colgate's eight, and both teams shot an identical 52.7 percent from the floor on 29-of-55 shooting. AU's biggest statistical advantage was its depth, scoring 31 bench points to Colgate's 10.