Expectations were sky-high in Ashland as the Randolph-Macon men’s basketball team took the home court at Crenshaw Gymnasium for the first time Tuesday night.
Preseason picked to win the Old Dominion Athletic Conference (ODAC) by the league’s coaches, the Yellow Jackets started their 2013-14 season in Scranton, Pa. over the weekend, going 1-1 at the Scranton University Tournament. Randolph-Macon handled Penn State-Abington in the season opener, 109-86, as six players scored in double figures, then fell to host Scranton 78-76.
Christopher Newport came to Crenshaw Tuesday, with the Jackets hoping to avenge an early season loss a year ago to the Captains. But despite 25 points and 11 rebounds from Andre Simon, the Randolph-Macon defense couldn’t stop the Jackets when it mattered most, squandering an early second half comeback to fall, 84-83.
Though the offense had a strong performance, especially with 50 percent shooting in the second half to erase a 43-36 Captains halftime lead, it struggled in two key stretches. Several misses in the paint in the first half after good penetration helped Christopher Newport seize the lead, while a series of misses as the Jackets approached the final minutes from the outside kept them from building on their slight lead.
The Jackets began the second half on a 20-7 run, turning the seven-point intermission deficit into a six-point lead.
“We only had seven turnovers, we had 16 assists, so we’re getting shots,” said Randolph-Macon head coach Nathan Davis. “We had 20 offensive rebounds. We lost because we’re not stopping them.”
Captains junior guard Mike Cherry scored 19 points to lead Christopher Newport (2-0), while Henrico High graduate, sophomore Evan Thorpe added 12, as the Captains had five players in double figures, making 12 three-pointers.
The Jackets, with Simon on the bench late with four fouls, kept stride for stride with CNU. Simon returned to action with a nifty assist to Joe Hassell down low for a traditional three-point play as Randolph-Macon took an 81-78 lead with 2:09 to go. But Tra Benefield answered with a trey to tie the game 17 seconds later.
Simon missed a layup, grabbed his own rebound, and scored what would be the Jackets’ final points with 1:32 to play, but the Captains answered with a tying basket as the final minute approached. Connor Sullivan lost possession under his own basket with 39.9 seconds left, giving the Captains the chance to set up for the final play.
The Jackets’ defense held firm for 34 of the shot clock’s 35 seconds, but, as the shot clock buzzer sounded, so did the referee’s whistle. Thorpe was fouled by Simon underneath, sending Andre to the bench for good with 4.4 left. Thorpe made the first free throw for the lead, missed the second, and the Jackets called time to set up a full-court prayer with 3.7 seconds left.
“We’re just not getting stops,” Davis noted dejectedly. “Until we do, we’re going to have a hard time.”
Sullivan took the inbounds pass off a screen and launched a three-pointer from 35 feet. It was short, but two Jackets had their hands on the ball for a possible winning put back just before the buzzer, but neither could control it.
Last year’s Jacket squad started slow but battled to a third place finish in the ODAC before winning the conference tournament and an automatic NCAA Tournament bid, where Randolph-Macon traveled more than six hours three weekends in a row before falling in the Sweet Sixteen. Early games such as this one produce victories that can help decide who stays home and who travels on the bus come March.
But Davis, and the Jackets, don’t care about March right now. There’s enough to worry about in November, as ODAC play begins next Tuesday at Guilford.
Randolph-Macon’s ascension to the top of the ODAC preseason poll was justified, returning all but two players from last year’s team. Juniors Sullivan, Chris Hamilton, and Marcus Badger return at guard, with fellow juniors Hassell and Akeem Holmes back in the paint. Trent Walker, Lamont Moore, Braeshaun Dozier and Evan Jackson all saw some playing time last season and are expected to contribute off the bench.
There are four freshman on the roster. Only one, guard Jamie Wilson (West Point), saw action Tuesday night. As was the case last year, there are two seniors, Simon and the injured Jamie Robinson, who broke his foot just before practice began in October.
“He just started putting weight on the foot this week,” Davis explained. “He sees the doctor the day before Thanksgiving and hopefully he’ll get the boot off and start conditioning. I hope we have him back sometime in early January.”