Balanced scoring effort carries men’s basketball past Bucknell

Eagles go small with Matt Rogers at center, Rogers records career-high 12 points

Balanced scoring effort carries men’s basketball past Bucknell
AU junior forward Josh Alexander in a Feb. 27 game against Bucknell.

In a rematch of last year’s Patriot League quarterfinals, American University’s men’s basketball (3-5) snapped a three-game losing streak Saturday afternoon, winning its first road game against Bucknell since 2014 and defeating the short-handed Bison (4-5) 78-71.

With senior guard and leading scorer Jamir Harris struggling from outside for most of the game, the Eagles needed surrounding players to step up and produce in what was a seesaw game between AU and the Bison. And step up is exactly what senior guard Stacy Beckton Jr., freshman forward Matt Rogers and sophomore guard Ben Lubarsky did, combining for 39 points. Rogers and Lubarsky recorded much-needed season-highs of 12 and 10 points, respectively.

"Everybody contributed,” head coach Mike Brennan said postgame. “We had 17 assists and 12 turnovers. So, we were sharing the ball and moving the ball. Obviously, [John] Meeks and [Andre] Screen not being in there helps, but overall, I thought our guys came ready, shared the ball and competed. Great road win."

Saturday’s performance was a return to form for Beckton, who was playing in just his second game back from an ankle injury. After scoring just two points on 1-8 shooting in Wednesday’s game against Loyola Maryland, Beckton provided steady scoring for the Eagles, putting up 17 points and knocking down two 3-pointers. He also used his athleticism to drive to the basket and get to the free-throw line, where he went 5-5.

While Beckton’s performance was far from surprising, the production Rogers gave the Eagles was. The freshman forward had been a solid piece off the bench for the Eagles so far this year, but freshmen teammates Johnny O’Neil and Colin Smalls somewhat overshadowed him in previous contests. On Saturday, Rogers was the key freshman on the floor for the Eagles. 

With junior forward Josh Alexander in foul trouble in the first half and junior forward Christian Lorng only playing four minutes, Brennan decided to play smaller lineups for a majority of the game, placing Rogers at center to match Bucknell’s guard-heavy lineups. He proved to be up for the task, grabbing three offensive rebounds, blocking two shots and knocking down his first 3-pointer of the season five minutes into the second half. That shot gave AU the lead after trailing for most of the game. After Rogers’ 3-pointer, AU would only trail one more time, and it only lasted for 25 seconds before they regained the lead.

Rogers was also a key part of the possession that effectively clinched the game for the Eagles. Up three with 26 seconds left, O’Neil went to the line and missed the front end of a one-and-one. After Beckton tapped the ball back toward halfcourt, Rogers sprinted all the way from the other end of the court, made sure he was across the halfcourt line to avoid a violation, and while slipping and falling, managed to grab the ball before two converging Bison players could get to it. He passed it to Harris, who would get fouled and knock down two free-throws to put the game out of reach.

Lubarsky, who has been one of the only three players to start every game this year for the Eagles this year, had his best game and scoring output of the season. After trailing for most of the first half, Lubarsky had an impressive eurostep-and-one on the fast break, giving AU its first lead since the opening minutes of the game. He also hit a 3-pointer in the first minute of the second half, and had an impressive post-up fadeaway that gave AU a two-point lead at the 12-minute mark. 

“They just needed experience and reps. They need to play,” Brennan said. “Each time, Ben [Lubarsky] comes back after a game and you talk to him, 'Hey, can you do these things better?' He comes back and he's ready and he's continually improving. It sounds crazy since it's the end of the year, but all we need is to be on the court playing and getting better. All of these guys can contribute. Matt Rogers gave us great minutes at the center spot today, too." 

Bucknell was missing four players due to coronavirus protocols, including leading scorer John Meeks and star freshman big man Andre Screen. The team hadn’t played a game since Jan. 31. Even given the circumstances, Bucknell was able to keep pace with the Eagles for most of the game with Deuce Turner, Walter Ellis and Xander Rice leading the way.

Despite trading buckets with the Eagles for most of the game, Bucknell was not able to consistently get the stops it needed to regain the lead. Whenever the Bison went on a run that could have put them ahead, AU responded, whether it was with a Beckton 3-pointer or a timely backdoor cut to the basket and score by Harris. 

Harris, despite missing seven of his eight two-point attempts, hit two big second-half 3-pointers for the Eagles, and made up for his poor shooting by going to the line and knocking down eight free throws. 

"Jamir is always ready. He's in phenomenal shape. He's been playing his whole life. So, he has a mindset to always be ready,” Brennan said. “Not shooting well, not making threes, that doesn't affect whether he can be a good player. He still had 19 points, a bunch of assists, he defended. He's continuing to become a complete player." 

Junior forward Connor Nelson was all over the place for the Eagles, grabbing a career-high 12 rebounds while also adding three steals. While Nelson hasn’t shot the ball this season as well as he did in his first year as an Eagle, he has consistently found ways to produce and fill holes for AU wherever he’s needed.

Men’s basketball will play Bucknell again Sunday afternoon at Bender Arena in the final game of the regular season. AU is no longer at risk of missing the tournament after the Patriot League decided to expand the tournament field to all 10 teams on Thursday. Tomorrow’s game against Bucknell serves as the last opportunity for the Eagles to obtain a better seed in the tournament, and potentially at least one home game. 

abranch@theeagleonline.com

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