AU men’s basketball comes up just short in first game, losing by one in overtime to Navy
Career-high 30 points from Stacy Beckton Jr. and an impressive debut from Johnny O’Neil not enough in season-opener
A career-high 30 points from senior guard Stacy Beckton Jr. and a valiant effort from a short-handed Eagles team was not enough on Saturday, as the AU men’s basketball team (0-1) lost its season-opener 87-86 to Navy (8-1, 5-0 PL) in overtime.
The Eagles walked into their first game in 317 days with only nine players dressed and available to play, according to the ESPN+ broadcast. Those nine players shrunk to eight midway through the first half when freshmen guard Colin Smalls suffered a groin injury almost immediately after checking into the game.
But despite their shallow bench, being one of the last two teams in Division I men’s basketball to start their season and having to go against a Midshipmen team with eight games under its belt, the Eagles held the lead until there were six minutes left in the contest.
Head coach Mike Brennan’s comments in an interview with The Washington Post suggested that the team was ready and energized to compete in its first game of the season, which showed on Saturday.
“They’re dying to get on the court,” Brennan said. “They’re dying to compete. I give our guys credit: They’ve been great in practice. But after a while, it’s just hard to go against your roommate every day. There’s got to be something beyond that.”
Beckton and fellow senior backcourt mate Jamir Harris combined for 50 of AU’s 86 points in the game, carrying the Eagles offensively while Navy was struggling to hit shots and free throws for much of the game.
"He's such a quiet kid, but he leads by example and by just how he plays,” Brennan said, referencing Beckton’s impressive performance. “He did so much for us last year in every other category. He was blocking shots, getting rebounds and doing all the dirty work. I'm not surprised [by him scoring a career-high 30 points], and it was a great game by Stacy."
But as the second half wound down, first-game fatigue seemed to get a hold of the Eagles, as they went a full six minutes of play without scoring a field goal. During the drought, the Midshipmen wrestled the lead away on the backs of senior guard Cam Davis and sophomore forward Daniel Deaver, the only two Navy players who had any legitimate success against a stifling Eagles defense.
After clutch buckets from Harris, Beckton and Josh Alexander — including a 4-point play from Beckton — gave a three-point lead back to AU with 16 seconds left, it looked like the Eagles were on their way to an upset victory. But Davis, who went toe-to-toe with Beckton with 34 points of his own, hit clutch free throws to send the game to overtime.
From there, Navy jumped out to a quick five-point lead that the Eagles ultimately could not overcome.
“I was encouraged. I thought we played hard,” Brennan said. “We did all the things that we tried to do in practice. Cam Davis is a handful and they're super-solid as a team. They're beating everybody and they're good. I thought we played hard and did a lot of good things.”
Despite the close loss, the Eagles found plenty of bright spots to build on.
If the Eagles want to compete for a Patriot League championship, they will likely have to do so on the backs of Beckton and Harris, and both seemed aware of that and up to the task Saturday. The veteran backcourt scored efficiently and aggressively, forced to carry a heavier role after last season’s squad often deferred to former guard and all-time leading scorer Sa’eed Nelson, who graduated last spring.
Alexander, who started the first game of his Eagles career Saturday, was a steady contributor in the paint, with his biggest contribution coming as a playmaker, racking up four assists in Brennan’s Princeton offense that requires good passing from its big men.
Another standout was freshman forward Johnny O’Neil, who scored 14 points in his Eagles debut, while hitting four three-pointers, blocking six shots and leading the team in rebounding. His play on both ends of the floor flashed great potential for a team that will likely need a few of its freshmen to step up and play important roles following the loss of three seniors and a transfer last year.
"I knew he could do a lot of different things,” Brennan said on O’Neil’s play. “I thought he played really hard when we recruited him, so it's good to see that's true. He's coachable. He's not worried about how many shots, how many minutes he gets, or anything like that. Our whole team is like that.”
The Eagles struggled with rebounding, fouling and turnovers, giving up 21 offensive rebounds, sending Navy to the free-throw line 40 times and turning the ball over 20 times. Sloppy play on both ends is something that most teams experience in the early games of the season, and usually improves as the group gets more game reps together.
Saturday’s game against Navy was the first of a doubleheader, meaning the Eagles will be back in Annapolis, Maryland at noon on Sunday to play the Midshipmen again, with another chance to pick up their first win of the season.