AU wrecks Navy, ends slump
Mired in a slump - losing two of its last three games - the AU Men's Basketball team entered Tuesday night's home game against Navy looking to change all the trends it could.
The Eagles altered their starting lineup, starting freshman guard Linas Lekavicius for the first time this season, in place of junior guard Jason Thomas. And they refocused their offensive strategy, refusing to settle for poor outside shots like in recent games.
After a frustrating first 30 minutes, in which the Eagles struggled to escape their recent poor form, they finally found the change they needed - a return of their offensive rhythm late in the second half that pushed the Eagles to a comfortable 71-49 win, and to 6-3 in the Patriot League (12-11 overall).
"It wasn't very pretty, but a win is a win," said AU head coach Jeff Jones. "We made the plays we needed to make. I hope we got whatever it was out of our system."
For much of the game, AU still looked out of sync. Against a Navy team that hasn't won a PL game this season, the Eagles repeatedly opened up double-digit leads, only to let Navy climb back into single digits on the next possession.
But when Navy closed the margin to 52-45 - the smallest deficit of the second half - with 8:49 left, AU finally awoke, springing a quick 8-0 run on the Midshipmen capped off by a Thomas three-pointer. That pushed the lead to 60-45, all but sealing AU's win.
A substitute for the first time since the early season, Thomas proved to be the agent of change that AU needed. The swingman scored 14 points on 5-of-6 shooting. Several of those came in crucial times, including another big three-pointer at the halftime buzzer that sent AU into the locker room with a 35-24 lead.
"We missed the front end of a one-and-one, and they finished with a three-pointer," said Navy head coach Don DeVoe, who is retiring at the end of the season. "That's a five point swing, and it enabled them to run off the floor with more spirit. For us it was a little bit of a downer."
Meanwhile, freshman guard Andre Ingram, who scored a career-high 27 points at Navy in the teams' first meeting, led all scorers in the second meeting. But Ingram, usually busy shooting from the perimeter, concentrated on scoring closer to the basket, shooting just 0-for-1 from three-point range all night.
"I'm sure they looked pretty closely at the last game," Ingram said. "We've been looking at different ways to score" than three-pointers. "Tonight, the pump fake was working, and the drive was working."
But maybe most encouragingly, senior pointguard Andres Rodriguez, who Jones has repeatedly asserted is AU's least expendable player, showed signs of significant improvement from the last three games, while still recovering from a left-ankle sprain suffered Jan. 30. Rodriguez's 11 assists didn't match the PL record-setting 19 accrued in the teams' first game, but it starkly contrasted his four at Bucknell Saturday. And the pesky guard added 10 points.
The only bright spot for Navy Tuesday, in what has been a dark and gloomy season, was the performance of substitute forward Chika Onyekanne, who led Navy scorers with 12 points in only his fourth varsity game of the season. Onyekanne said he'd been battling injury problems, most notably tendonitis in both knees, throughout the year while playing on Navy's junior varsity team, and had only recently been healthy enough to play on the varsity squad.
Coupled with Lehigh's 64-63 loss to Bucknell Tuesday night, AU's win pulls the team to within a game of the second-place PL spot held by Lehigh (7-2 PL), but it still remains tied for third with Bucknell (6-3 PL). Lafayette again sits alone in first (8-1 PL).
Lehigh awaits AU on Friday night in a PLTV telecast from Bethlehem, Pa., tipping off at 8 p.m. A win puts the Eagles at worst in a three-way tie for second place and would secure Jeff Jones' 200th career coaching victory. It would also avenge Lehigh's 63-58 overtime victory over AU at Bender Arena on Jan. 17.
"We have to come ready to play. This game's over now and all the focus is on Friday's game," Ingram said. Optimistically, he added, "We've played pretty well on the road against some hostile crowds."
"They beat us over here," Rodriguez conceded. "We owe them"