BY Rob Witham
Everyone surrounding Randolph-Macon men’s basketball quietly hopes that the resounding win they enjoyed over their biggest rival, Hampden-Sydney, two weeks ago wasn’t a peak, but merely a positive step on the road to something better.
To make sure that is reality, the Yellow Jackets have to find a way to begin games strong. That has been their achilles heel of late. In Old Dominion Athletic Conference (ODAC) losses at Emory and Henry and at home to Eastern Mennonite in overtime, Randolph-Macon fell behind by double digits in the first half.
Doing so means a team must expend a tremendous amount of energy, both physically and psychologically, to get back into the game and have a chance to win. The loss to the Wasps cost them a share of first place in the ODAC standings. The home defeat to Eastern Mennonite was a wake-up call.
The 70-69 overtime defeat marked the Royals’ first win in fifteen tries at Crenshaw Gymnasium. Entering Saturday’s home affair against Randolph, the issue now wasn’t about ODAC standings or tournament seedings next month, it was all about how to start stronger, and how to finish victorious.
It didn’t look promising to start, as Randolph scored the game’s first six points, and the Yellow Jackets didn’t get on the board until a Grayson Midulla layup four minutes into the contest. Two minutes later, a Daniel Noe three-pointer tied the game at 6-6. The Wildcats extended their lead back to five at 13-8, then Montese Adams turned a traditional three-point play, bringing the Yellow Jackets within two.
Finally, Randolph-Macon enjoyed their first lead of the afternoon on an Adams basket with 7:46 left in the first half for an 18-17 lead. The rest of the first half saw the Yellow Jackets quietly build a lead as they solved early issues, working better defensively, especially on the perimeter, and, as is a sign of all good teams, getting scoring from several players. By the time Midulla hit a three-pointer with 2:06 left in the half, the lead was twelve.
“We took a step back in the right direction, I think,” noted sophomore guard Korey Turner, one of four Yellow Jackets to post double figures in scoring. “We didn’t finish too well, but, in the beginning, we just have to focus more on our work, and I think we’ll be fine.”
“Certainly, we’re going to talk about all the things we can do better,” Randolph-Macon head coach Josh Merkel said when asked about the team’s efforts in practice, and among themselves, to get off to better starts in games. “But it’s about the best team that you can be at the end of the year. I don’t think we’ve been that the past couple of years. I think this group has every opportunity to do that.”
While the Yellow Jackets shot just 42.3 percent from the field in the first half, they hit three of seven three-point tries, and held the Wildcats to 28.6 percent from the floor. Randolph-Macon was the beneficiary of better shot selection, and more transition basket opportunities in the second half, shooting 53.6 percent, as their lead continued to grow.
The critical second half stretch began after a Nick Goble layup cut the Wildcat deficit to 43-29. Over the next 2:11, Randolph-Macon got three-pointers from Darryl Williams and Corey Bays, and a basket from Terry Woods, to rip off an 8-2 run to up their lead to twenty at 51-31. The lead went to as high as 27, and the game finished as a 68-47 victory.
Merkel was happy with the 47, but on the other side of the board?
“When we’re at our best, it’s because we’re sharing the ball, we’ve got twenty assists, and we’ve got balance,” Merkel explained. “When we’re at our best, we’re also scoring 80, so I don’t know that I was happy with the 68. I think the first ten minutes had a lot to do with it.”
Still unbeaten in conference play, Emory and Henry (10-0) began the week with a two-game lead over second place Randolph-Macon (8-2). Right behind the Yellow Jackets are Washington and Lee and Guilford, both at 7-3, then always dangerous Virginia Wesleyan at 6-4. The top four finishers in the conference earn byes to the ODAC Championship Quarterfinals later this month in Salem.
The biggest stretch of the season begins Saturday when the Yellow Jackets host Guilford at 2pm, travel to Virginia Wesleyan Wednesday, then get the rematch with Emory and Henry Saturday February 10th on Senior Day and Alumni Day at Crenshaw.
Balanced offensive contributions like the ones they enjoyed Saturday will help. Turner and Adams each scored eleven points while Noe and Midulla each had ten, while Buzz Anthony had seven and Williams contributed six.
But even more importantly is the ability to get out of the starting blocks fast. At worst, be even, at best, be building a lead, and force the pressure of exerting everything to get back into a game on their opponents, rather than forcing it on themselves.
It’s a luxury Randolph-Macon hasn’t enjoyed in a while, and they savor the opportunity to do it again.