The Shawnee State men’s basketball team has shown a lot of ups and downs throughout the young season for first year head coach DeLano Thomas.
On Thursday night, despite the final outcome, the Bears showed they were a scrappy group that warranted notice in the Mid South Conference.
Shawnee State fell to No. 8-ranked Lindsey Wilson by a score of 85-74, but it wasn’t easy for the Blue Raiders, though at times it looked like it might be.
Both teams battled to a 7-7 through the opening four minutes, but Lindsey Wilson would coast on a 10-0 run to take a 17-7 lead with 12:38 to play in the first half.
“I didn’t see the focus that we needed to start the game,” Bears head coach DeLano Thomas said. “It hurt us not having the focus we needed, but the guys showed the resilience and that they’re some fighters and can play.”
In the first half, Shawnee State would trail by as many as 19 points with 8:03 to play after two free throws from Bryan Wallace made the score 31-12.
Wallace would finish with 18 points, and along with sharp shooting from Kel Stotts (24 points) led Lindsey Wilson to 7-for-14 shooting from beyond the arc in the game.
Through 12 minutes, it was clear to Thomas that his team was not bringing the intensity he would like to start the game.
After a coast to coast finish from Tamal Watkins made the score 31-14, Thomas took a timeout with 6:40 to play in the opening half to talk with his group.
“What we talked about was how we start practice is how we start the game right now,” Thomas said. “If we start practice slow, we’re going to start these games slow.”
“The focus now is just on our goals and what we’re trying to accomplish, but at the same time be a little better in practice and it will carry over into the game.”
As the first half winded down, the Bears got a couple big baskets to build up the energy within the team and in the crowd.
Freshman EJ Onu was a big reason for that, throwing down an alley-oop slam with 30 seconds to play on a nice feed from Bryan Rolfe.
Then, Onu sent home another slam with just two seconds to play, making the score 41-26 in favor of the Blue Raiders at halftime.
Onu posted 19 points on 8-for-11 shooting, and also had six rebounds and six blocks. He was also tasked with defending Nic Brown, a 6-foot-11, 230 pound senior who is one of the best big men in the conference.
“It was a big challenge for him,” Thomas said. “Nic Brown is a big man that played like a man today for them.”
“It was good to see EJ for the most part neutralize what he had brought to the table. EJ’s progression is great to see, and his ceiling is high right now.”
Brown was big for Lindsey Wilson as well, with 17 points, 17 rebounds, and seven blocks.
In the second half, Shawnee State showed they weren’t going down without swinging out of the gates.
The Bears opened on an 11-2 run, topped off by an Onu basket off an offensive rebound. That score cut the count to 43-37 with 16:48 to play, and prompted the Blue Raiders to take a timeout.
Right on cue, Lindsey Wilson responded with a quick 7-2 run in around a minute and a half. Wallace stole a Shawnee State pass with 15:15 to go and finished at the other end to make the lead double digits once more at 50-40.
That play showcased what was a challenge for the Bears all night: turnovers.
Shawnee State would finish with 20 in the game, and it seemed that several of those were costly.
“If you have 20 turnovers, it becomes easy transition for those guys,” Thomas said. “Go back and watch this film and see how many layups they really had where there was no defense.”
“We lose by 11 points, but when you probably give up 20 points of layups, you put yourself in a tough situation.”
As the game transpired, it seemed to be a recurring theme. The Bears would make a push, but each time the Blue Raiders had an answer back.
Shawnee State twice pulled within four points, first at the 7:50 mark when Jayllen Carter snatched a loose ball and got a fast break slam to make the score 59-55.
Carter would finish with nine points for the Bears.
With 1:10 remaining, Shawnee State again drew within four after Justin Johnson snatched a steal and finished with a slam to make the score 78-74.
It was clear that the Bears were buying in and were going to battle, which is what their coach encouraged them to do down the stretch.
“Them playing is not a reflection of how I am,” Thomas said. “They know how I am as far as working hard, playing hard, and not being scared of anybody as far as the game.”
“To play fearless, but to be unselfish. I told my guys to stick to the game plan, trust each other, and let’s just see what the outcome is.”
The fight was evident from Shawnee State, but Lindsey Wilson would score the final seven points to grab an 85-74 victory.
With the loss, Shawnee State moved to 9-8 overall and 0-2 in the MSC.
Still, the Bears are right in the midst of the action despite their start to conference play. With a lot of parity in the conference, Coach Thomas knows his guys have to just keep their focus.
“The Mid South is pretty wide open if you ask me, I think you just have to come to play,” Thomas said. “Teams are going to be pretty well scouted, it’s about the players to buy into the game plan and to stay with it within the game.”
“We’re right in the mix of it, it’s all about us starting off strong and we’ll see where we’re at as far as finishing strong. We’ve been doing a good job finishing, but our start has been bad.”
Next up for Shawnee State is a meeting with Cumberland (8-8, 1-1) at home on Saturday. The Phoenix are coming off an 89-85 win over No. 6 Pikeville on Thursday, and offer a new set of challenges for the Bears according to Thomas.
“They’re a very tough team again, you don’t get a night off in the Mid South,” Thomas said. “We’re going to prepare for those guys and really attack the basket, be physical, and play hard. We’ve got a tough opponent coming in to the game.”
In a loaded conference, Shawnee State has plenty of their own ammunition in the chamber as well.
Now, it’s just time to reload.