Pulling off an upset is one that takes tremendous effort and grit.
But make no mistake about it, execution is also a must.
From beginning to end, the Shawnee State University men’s basketball program displayed all three of those qualities in spades on the defensive end of the floor as the Bears used five blocks from EJ Onu — who broke the school’s all-time single season block mark with the performance — two steals apiece from Tamal Watkins and Bryan Rolfe, and 20 points from Watkins to claim its biggest victory of the season in a 53-51 victory over No. 18 Cumberlands (Ky.) on Saturday evening at Frank and Janis Waller Gymnasium.
For DeLano Thomas, the collective team effort on the defensive end was an effort that the first-year head coach was very pleased to see.
“It’s a tribute to those guys,” Thomas said. “They started out strong from start to finish, and Cumberlands (Ky.) is a great team. For us to put that type of performance together, and hold them to 51 points, is amazing.”
That performance, which primarily came off of the back of the Bears’ defensive centerpiece in Onu, was simply nothing less than a clinic, especially over the first 12 minutes of the affair. Shawnee State, fueled by three blocks from its star freshman on the game’s first three possessions, scored the game’s first seven points and held Cumberlands completely scoreless over the first 8:34. It took another 2:20 before the Patriots were finally able to connect on their first field goal attempt — a three-pointer from Samuel Bernard — as Shawnee State held an early 9-5 advantage during that timespan.
“It was great to have our defense in that spectrum,” Thomas said. “Now, we’ve just got to get our offense to make that push. Asking our defense to hold an opponent scoreless for that length of time, and establish such a lead, is really hard. Our offense has to get a pop to it, as well. We could’ve actually had a 20-point lead because we were doing such a great job defensively.”
As the Patriots started to gain the tiniest bit of rhythm offensively, Watkins, a 6-1 sparkplug of a guard, countered with his clever finishing abilities. The sophomore guard used his crafty angles and solid shooting stroke to keep Cumberlands off-balance, mixing in a couple of treys with another pair of clever finishes inside — taking contact both times and getting the call on the second occasion that led to a converted and-one opportunity — to keep SSU in front, 24-18, at halftime behind the Columbus native’s strong 11-point outing.
“Tamal came to me before the game and really talked about what we could do to limit what they’re good at,” Thomas said. “That showed me that he wasn’t thinking about himself, and when you don’t think about yourself, you just play the game of basketball. As a result, those types of things happen for you, and it was great to see that for him.”
As the second half got rolling, however, it was Cumberlands who proved to be the more resolute of the two programs. Trailing by the aforementioned six-point margin at halftime, a 14-5 run by the Patriots, off of the strength of eight points from high point man Malik Colvin-Seldon — who finished with 16 — allowed Cumberlands to take a 32-29 advantage.
But within the next two minutes, Shawnee State managed to push through the adversity. With 11:08 to go in the quarter, Watkins was fouled hard on a drive and wrapped up, which rightly led to an intentional foul ruling. Watkins drained the two free throws, and SSU, with the basketball in hand, was able to get Jayllen Carter freed up in a huge four-point swing that allowed the Bears to take a 35-34 lead.
Over the next five minutes, both teams proceeded to tie or trade the advantage on seven separate occasions as both teams battled for control of the affair. But when Fred Moore scored on another hard-fought bucket down low, and Onu followed with his fifth and final block of the affair that resulted in his single-season record-breaking 77th block of the season, the shift in momentum became noticeable.
“I’m just happy for EJ to be able to do that,” Thomas said of the record-setting block, which came with less than 6:20 to play in the contest. It’s an honor to me that he was able to do it. My words for him were, ‘Don’t just be satisfied with breaking that record. Shatter the record. Make sure that the next person isn’t going to do it for another 50 years.’ As we saw tonight, his presence was crucial.”
Behind the efforts of the pair, along with the help of Matt Rhodes, Shawnee State took off on its most critical run of the affair as the Bears went on an 11-2 spurt, with Rhodes nailing a pair of jumpers and Watkins connecting on a three from the left wing to put the Bears up six. Justin Johnson then followed with a gritty finish through contact as the Bears took a 50-42 advantage with just over three minutes to play.
“Cumberlands took us out of what we wanted to do, but it was good to see the guys not speed themselves up, and trust each other,” Thomas said. “They moved the ball around and were patient in creating the shot that we needed. Tamal stepping up to knock the three down was tremendous.”
However, despite Shawnee State’s discipline on the defensive end, the Bears still had to hold off one final Cumberlands charge.
With the game on the line, Colvin-Seldon again stepped up in a critical manner by drawing contact on a rebound and obtaining a pair of free throws, then obtained a tough low-post basket over the outstretched arms of a pair of defenders with 41.6 seconds to play to cut the Shawnee State lead to two, 53-51.
But when the Bears needed one final stop, the senior class of Carter, Moore, Rhodes, and J. Murrell delivered with excellent defense.
When Moore’s fadeaway glanced off of the side of the rim with 26 seconds left, Shawnee State’s collective group was able to get back and eventually force a tough, off-balance shot from Samuel that fell short of its target. A final putback from Chance Morton fell off the mark and was too late to count, allowing Thomas’ group to move to 11-11 overall and 2-5 in the MSC with the victory.
“You’ve got some seniors out there who really did their job,” Thomas said. “They guarded well without fouling and they forced Cumberlands into a tough, off-balance three.”
With the win, Thomas not only got to watch Onu enjoy the satisfaction of breaking his 14-year old record with eight games to go in the regular season, but got to beat the very team that the first-year head coach picked to win the Mid-South Preseason Poll (coaches can’t vote for their own team).
Now, what does Thomas want the group to do with it? Establish further momentum and being rolling forward — which starts with a rivalry bout against Rio Grande on Tuesday evening in Portsmouth.
“I have tremendous respect for (Donnie) Butcher, his program, and the team he has,” Thomas said. “The win today shows that our guys can compete with any program if we continue to buy into playing together as a team.”