AU defeats Youngstown State 77-62 at Bender Arena on Saturday
Sa'eed Nelson scores 22 points to help Eagles notch second win
When the intensity increases and the pressure mounts, AU puts the basketball in the hands of a freshman. And even on Saturday, as the Eagles propelled themselves to a comfortable 77-62 lead against Youngstown State, they still ran behind the confidence, success and adrenaline of freshman guard Sa’eed Nelson.
The Eagles entered the game searching for their second win of the season, and they found it with a combined effort from Nelson, who hit 22 points, and a group of other underclassmen.
The Penguins of Youngstown State came out strong against AU, leading the game for the first 18 minutes and playing aggressive basketball, but Nelson soon found his rhythm and brought the Eagles back to life. He moved his 5-11 frame around the court with ease and speed, working through the Youngstown State defense and repeatedly driving to the basket in a swift fashion.
With 2 minutes 30 seconds to play in the first half, Nelson hit a layup that brought AU ahead for the first time all game, and he followed up his shot with a free throw, an area that the Eagles have struggled with in the past, but performed much better in on Saturday. Junior transfer Matt Cimino built off Nelson’s scoring lead and hit a three-pointer that brought energy back to the crowd in Bender Arena. AU continued to sink baskets for the remainder of the half and ended the first twenty minutes on a 14-point scoring run initiated by Nelson’s field goal late in the half.
The Eagles entered halftime with a nine-point lead over the Penguins, the largest first-half lead they have had all season. AU also nearly doubled its halftime point total produced against Western Illinois University, the only other team that the Eagles beat this fall. Four Eagles ended the game with double digit point totals including Nelson, freshman center Mark Gasperini, and sophomore guards Delante Jones and James Washington.
Head coach Mike Brennan said the improvement is part of a larger progression that he has seen throughout the seasons, both in practice and in games. He praised his team for its effort, reinforcing the theme that success is measured by getting better rather than a single game performance, but added that Saturday’s win helps team morale.
“It’s very important to have a tangible result from all of your work and effort,” Brennan said. “I think we’ve been practicing really hard since the guys got here, since they arrived on campus, so they’ve kept going, getting better, doing a really good job in practice, and they did stick with it.”
Brennan also praised the work effort of senior Charlie Jones, an upperclassman leader who showed poise and toughness on the court and leads his team in plays, despite not recording a point on Saturday. Jones’ development at AU has been widely noted by The Eagle, and while he did start against Youngstown State, Brennan made a point to single out Jones’ drive in the post-game press conference, emphasising the role of the team in Saturday’s win.
Jones recorded three steals and none rebounds in his 26 minutes of play on Saturday and ended the game with the most number of minutes of any senior on the team. Brennan lauded Jones and the rest of the squad, including the bench players, for their energy and commitment to the team.
“Charlie is obviously always great in practice, so it’s a collective effort,” Brennan said. “Even the guys that didn’t get to play, they are helping us win.”
Washington, an Eagle starter who notched 10 points, also received credit from his coach after the game. Washington added that Brennan’s focus on defense, improvement and practice effort has helped the team grow over the last several weeks.
The team started last year in a similar position, 2-7 after the first nine games, but Washington said the team is in higher spirits this year, and he feels more confident heading into Patriot League play.
The Eagles will compete in their first Patriot League matchup on December 30th, but before the game against Loyola, they will take on the University of Maryland Eastern Shore and Villanova on Dec. 21 and Dec. 30, respectively.
“It’s a different feeling, you know, last year, we were losing, we didn’t really know if we were getting better, it was just deflating, but we fought,” Washington said. “But this year, it's like we’re losing, but at the same time, everybody is in good spirits because we know we are all getting better. Our record doesn’t show it but we are getting better everyday. The better we get and the more we keep playing like this, the season will turn out the way we want. We have two more games to get ready for Patriot League play, and I feel very confident about the outcome.”