In any contest, it’s always important for a team to play to its strengths, because that allows said team to have as much success as possible.
And during the nightcapper of Thursday evening’s women-men doubleheader between the Shawnee State men’s basketball program and the Life (Ga.) men’s basketball program, it was the Running Eagles who played to their strengths as Life used excellent isolation play from Jay Johnson (26 points, 13 rebounds, three blocks) and a 10-of-26 mark from three-point range (38.5 percent) to defeat the Bears, 73-57, in a Mid-South Conference contest that was held at Frank and Janis Waller Gymnasium.
For DeLano Thomas, the hat went off to the No. 25 Running Eagles, who used Johnson’s production, and the pose from a starting lineup that consists of four seniors and a junior, to gas up an excellent effort on the road.
“They have some veteran players over there that make a lot of good decisions at the right time,” Thomas said. “(Jay) Johnson got it going, and they kept going to him. He’s a heck of a player. He just chose to have his best game of the year on us. That becomes a tough one. The gameplan was just to see if he could continue to score, and he did his job. Congrats to Life on the win.”
From the outset of the affair, Jayllen Carter proved to be solid for Shawnee State as the Portsmouth native wasted no time getting involved in the scoring. Carter’s eight points, along with a pair of threes from EJ Onu and Selby Hind-Willis, allowed the Bears to go on a spirited 7-0 run that put the Bears up by a 19-13 tally with 11:32 to play in the opening quarter of action.
“Our youth is getting the experience that they need right away,” Thomas said. “Without question, we want to win these games, because we’re putting ourselves in position to win every time the guys play together. That’s what I told them downstairs. They did a heck of a job just playing together. Now, on the basketball side, if we see our shots not falling outside, we’ve got to continue to attack the paint. That puts us in a situation to win every time we play together.”
However, even though Carter ultimately scored 12 of his 18 points in the first half, and knocked down a three to answer a 7-0 Life spurt to put SSU back up by a pair (22-20), the SSU offense, outside of five quick points from Fred Moore, started to stagnate as the Running Eagles went on a 12-5 run — behind five straight points from Johnson — to retake the lead and hold a five-point advantage out to the halftime break.
In the third quarter, the Bears, at first, struggled to get its offense untracked as Johnson added six consecutive points to push the Life lead to as much as 10. The lead then bounced around eight to 10 points for much of the game’s first nine minutes before Shawnee State’s depth and defensive pressure in the backcourt started to wear on Life.
After Bryan Rolfe gave the Bears life by forcing Life’s Michael Miller to dribble the ball off of his foot, Moore and Carter got back into a grove as the pair combined to score each of Shawnee State’s next nine points, with the former finishing off a low-post opportunity through contact to give the Bears further fuel as Shawnee State closed to within 49-48. When Carter missed a three to take the lead, Rolfe darted for the long rebound, moved inside, and cleaned up the miss to give Shawnee State its first lead of the second half, and Onu followed the trio’s efforts up by scoring inside after the Bears forced a five-second call on a side-out by Life to take a 52-49 lead with 7:35 to play.
“That was the gameplan,” Thomas said. “We knew that Life had a short bench, so it was really important for us to think about the first 26 minutes. If we could dominate them by keeping the pressure on those guys and speeding them up, they should be feeling their legs a little bit more. We tried to keep rotating guys in order to keep the pressure on. I believe that we did a good job of that, and our transition play really worked. When they went zone, that slowed the game down and we became really stagnant. That hurt us a bit.”
Unfortunately, that lead wasn’t to last. Despite Onu’s efforts to find off four straight points from Johnson with a low-post bucket that gave Shawnee State a 54-53 advantage with less than 6:20 to go, Undra Mitchem got free and supplied the help that Johnson needed by supplying 10 of his 13 points during the second half, including seven in a row, to give Life a 61-54 lead with 3:56 to play in the contest. The Bears, who went 0-for-19 from three-point range in the second half, only connected on one field goal the rest of the way.
“When I finally spoke to the guys and we got the understanding that we had to continue to attack, we actually got a lead,” Thomas said. “For us, it was about continuing to play to our strengths. However, when you don’t do that for so long, you allow Jay Johnson and other people to get going, and then we’re wasting a lot of energy playing catchup instead of staying with what’s working.”
With the loss, Shawnee State fell to 10-11 overall and 1-5 in the Mid-South Conference. The Bears, who have seen all five of their conference losses come at the hands of conference teams that are ranked or receiving votes in the NAIA Division I Poll, will have another tough challenge when No. 18-ranked Cumberlands (Ky.) comes to town on Saturday afternoon at 4 p.m.
“Cumberlands is a very good team,” Thomas said. “I actually had them picked to finish first in our league before the start of the season. It’s going to be a great opponent that’s coming in here (on Saturday). It’s a great opportunity for us to beat a team that is capable of winning our league. I’m excited to see what we can do against them.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT