For the vast majority of freshman in the college basketball ranks, it takes a little while before said newcomers are able to make an impact in the main rotation of their respective units.
However, if Shawnee State freshman and Cleveland native EJ Onu has heard that saying before, it’s certainly hard to tell if he’s been paying attention to it.
The 6-10 big man and graduate of Richmond Heights High School put together the best performance in what has been a sensational start to the 2017-18 campaign for the first-year SSU hand, putting together career-highs of 20 points and 11 rebounds while also adding four blocks into the mix to lead Delano Thomas’ club to an 89-77 victory over Wilberforce en route to helping the Bears move to 6-2 on the young season.
As good as Onu’s performance was, however, Thomas believed that Onu — whom Thomas jokingly said “could very well have the school’s all-time record if the freshman received credit for more blocks that weren’t counted,” had even more altered shots than what was initially perceived.
“EJ had a heck of game,” Thomas said. “He had a monster performance. I whispered to him before the game and said, ‘This is a great day for you to put together a double-double.’ He did that today. It was good to see the young man work as hard as he has been. Every day, all he’s been asking is how he’s going to get better. It’s a pleasure to coach him.”
And from the opening tap, Onu wasted no time getting out in front of the competition. In fact, over the first six minutes and 13 seconds of the affair, the freshman with limitless potential put fellow big man Berruche Archille on a poster, nailed a three from dead on, and scored on a tiny hook shot to quickly put SSU out in front, 11-5 early on.
As the big fella continued to control the low post, the Scioto County duo of Jayllen Carter and Bryan Rolfe began making their own impact on the affair. The first of their two lob connections — from Rolfe to Carter on both occasions — came with 11:27 to play in the opening half and stopped a 9-3 Wilberforce spurt in its tracks. Rolfe finished with nine assists while Carter collected nine points and three steals during the affair.
“(Rolfe and Carter) have built a relationship to the point where they really like each other off and on the court, so that makes the on-court chemistry so much easier to build on,” Thomas said. “They’re actually looking for each other and they know their roles. It was good to see them connect on the two lobs, and play as hard as they did.”
Wilberforce, however, stayed right on SSU’s heels over the entire first half of action. The Bulldogs’ excellent shooting, coupled with its scrappy defensive play, allowed Wilberforce to take a 34-33 lead as Tony Collins, Arthur Haggard, Torien Moore, Malik Breckenbridge, Lajaune Marshall, and Jaylon Smith each connected on shots from long-distance en route to allowing the Bulldogs to go 6-of-10 from beyond the arc in the first half. Turnovers by SSU — 11 in the first half and 16 in the second — also kept Wilberforce in the game throughout.
“We turned the ball over 27 times,” Thomas said. “That allowed Wilberforce to stay in the game, and that’s something that we’ve got to cut down if we want to finish games. Our closeouts were terrible. We have struggled the last two games in that area. We have to do a better job of running guys off of the line and forcing them to drive into our bigs inside. We just can’t allow uncontested threes. College basketball players are going to hit those.”
Gavin Brown, however, had other ideas. The freshman, who showed off a deft shooting ability en route to leading Shawnee State behind a 3-of-5 mark from three-point range, collected four of his 10 points in one fell swoop by knocking down a three-pointer from dead on. Brown, a Carroll native, hit the resulting free throw to give Shawnee State a 37-34 advantage after Smith’s three put Wilberforce ahead briefly on the previous possession, and the Bears, as a result, closed the first half on a 6-2 run that put SSU up by a 39-36 count at halftime.
“As Gavin begins to learn how to move around the floor, he’ll open up space for EJ, Fred (Moore), and Justin (Johnson) so that those guys can operate in space,” Thomas said. “He does a great job, when he is open, of letting the ball go. He actually has the size at his position right now, so trying to get him to continue to move will put us in good shape.”
In addition to Brown’s touch from deep, the play of Fred Moore and J. Murrell proved to be huge in the first half of action. Moore obtained a team-high 15 points in the first half en route to 21 points, nine rebounds, five assists, and three blocks in 25 minutes, while Murrell did the dirty work in obtaining 10 rebounds, four assists, three blocks, and a steal in 24 minutes.
“J. does the right things and just prides himself on being in the right places,” Thomas said. “He does so much that doesn’t go into the statsheet, so when you have somebody like that who works hard for the team, it does wonders for the entire team. Fred did a great job of coming off of the bench and having the right senior mindset to score, rebound, and do a lot of things such as settling us down is concerned.”
In the second half of action, Wilberforce continued to scrap as the play of Moore, who nailed five of his eight threes en route to a game-high 18 points, cut the Shawnee State lead to a 57-51 tally with 12:20 to play after the Bears opened up its cushion to a 50-41 margin earlier in the half.
But Derick Jones — a freshman walk-on from Vinton County — had other ideas. In the span of less than two minutes, the sharpshooting guard hit a pair of treys, and a steal and breakaway finish from Carter, along with a low-post finish from Justin Johnson, was all SSU needed from there as the Bears went on a 10-0 run to push its lead to 67-51 — the largest of the game. Wilberforce battled back and cut the lead to a 76-66 margin behind five points from Moore, but Onu followed with nine points over the game’s final nine minutes to seal the deal.
“When you have someone like Derick, who comes in as a freshman walk-on, and takes advantage of the time that you give him, it’s outstanding,” Thomas said. “He uses his time inside and outside of practice wisely because he’s practicing with the team and on his own. It’s good to see the rewards that you reap when you put the time in.”
With the victory, Shawnee State improved its overall record to 6-2 on the year. The Bears will play at Lake Erie on Saturday at 4 p.m. before participating in the Johnson Suns Basketball Invitational and the Florida Tech Winter Classic to close out the month.
“Our season is built for us to prepare for Mid-South competition,” Thomas said. “We’ll be battle-tested, especially against Lake Erie, who is very athletic and disciplined. We have to come in and make sure that we keep our circle tighter and communicate more. We have to be confident in what we’ve been working on, and pay attention to the little details that will allow us to come out with the results that we desire.”