RIO GRANDE — As Shawnee State simply sped its way to last season’s NAIA National Championship, there was that one infamous—albeit completely forgotten — speed-bump along the highway.
That’s right, if you even remember, that the Bears —stunningly at the time —lost a 64-61 decision to the underdog University of Rio Grande RedStorm, one of only two losses Shawnee State suffered in 33 games and en route to its first-ever men’s basketball national title.
Thus, consider Friday night not a repeat —and avoiding that particular road block in front of a good crowd.
That’s because the Bears broke a 14-14 tie with nine unanswered points over a span of almost eight minutes, and then broke the game open with 15 early and unanswered second-half points, coasting to an 84-52 non-league win inside the University of Rio Grande’s Newt Oliver Arena and as part of the annual Bevo Francis Classic.
The Bears, which won their final 27 games of last season as part of that national championship, extended their win streak to 31 consecutive contests —while the young RedStorm slipped to 1-2.
A year ago in this matchup inside SSU’s Waller Gymnasium, the Bears stormed out to leads of 39-28 at halftime and 44-29 with 17 minutes and 17 seconds remaining —but went cold from the field for the second half, an icy 9-of-28 to be exact.
The six-foot 11-inch NAIA All-American first-teamer E.J. Onu, in fact, only attempted two second-half shots —with 15 minutes and only five seconds to go.
Rio Grande, instead, played to its strengths and dictated the second-half tempo — ultimately going 12-of-27 from three-point range.
However, a Rio repeat — in SSU’s first road show — was nowhere near in the offing for this season’s meeting.
With a 35-25 halftime advantage, the Bears blitzkrieged the RedStorm for 49 second-half points —scoring 15 in a row after Miki Tidic’s tally 22 seconds in got Rio Grande to a single-digit deficit (35-27) for the final time.
Cody Lantz landed a three-pointer for the RedStorm to make it 50-30 —but not before it was a personal highlight reel for the Bears’ six-foot six-inch senior wingman Miles Thomas.
Thomas splashed a corner-pocket three at the 19:13 mark, then 55 seconds later just drove the lane left-handed and split the RedStorm defense — before throwing down a thunderous one-handed dunk.
And, while that hammer-down was quite impressive, Thomas — whose 20 points on 7-of-13 shooting and 4-of-5 free throws was a game-high —had his better of two slams at the 16:25 mark.
Of his four steals, he made a midcourt one —and went totally uncontested the other way with a fantastic windup and windmill dunk to make it 46-27.
He even ‘shush’ gestured the Rio Grande crowd, as that run put to easy rest any ideas the RedStorm had for another comeback.
But as SSU men’s coach Delano Thomas talked about afterwards, defense led to offense for the athletic, experienced, deep and lightning-fast Bears —who did graduate their two NAIA All-Americans in Onu (first team) and James Jones (second team).
“We were in this position last season against Rio at our place. At halftime, that was the biggest conversation. Last year, we had a 15-point lead with 17 minutes left and we stopped playing and Rio kept playing. And Rio was not going to stop playing tonight. That was one of the key points in our scout. Let’s make sure we key in on that moment,” said the coach. “Defense led to offense and we started shooting the ball better in the second half.”
As the 84-52 final was the Bears’ largest lead, Shawnee State stymied Rio Grande to only 34-percent shooting on 19-of-56, including 5-of-16 (31.3-percent) from three-point range.
They also forced 14 turnovers, and made eight steals towards 18 points off those — and totally crushed the RedStorm in rebounding by almost a 2-1 margin (54-29 total).
In fact, the 23-9 offensive rebounding advantage aided the Bears’ 20 second-chance points —as Shawnee State scored 31 points off the bench, compared to just 10 for Rio Grande.
That bench charge was spearheaded by Courtese Cooper with 11 points on 5-of-11 shooting and a game-high 14 rebounds, as starter Elijah Bishop bagged 16 points on 6-of-11 shooting — including a three-pointer to make it 31-18 and 3-of-3 foul shots.
Latavious Mitchell notched a near double-double with nine points and eight boards —as he tied Donoven Carlisle (eight) on the glass.
The Bears shot 44-percent as a team on 31-of-71, which was hindered by making only 6-of-23 (26-percent) from three-point land.
Only Miles Thomas, with the first three-pointer of the game to make it 5-0, had more than one three-point make for the Bears.
Rather, like Coach Thomas discussed, it was defense leading ultimately to offense.
It actually started at the 12:56 mark of the first half, when Tidic tied it at 14-14 —for the fourth and final tie.
The Bears blanked the RedStorm for the next seven minutes and 50 seconds —building a 23-14 advantage until South Webster’s Shiloah Blevins’ bucket inside ended the Rio Grande drought.
While the Bears shot only 32-percent (12-of-37 total and 2-of-13 from three) in the opening half, Rio Grande garnered only eight field goals — on 27 total attempts for 30-percent.
The only other RedStorm markers were in the final 1:50 —a Tidic triple, two Tidic free throws and another Blevins basket.
“We were very active early, but we missed some shots we normally make. That allowed them to stay close, but in that stretch there, guys keyed in on defense, and we into a stop-score stop-score mindset. At that time, we had to take it possession by possession. We were trying to build that lead so quick, but we have to be more poised, more patient,” said Coach Thomas. “We did a good job at the end of the first half, and that carried over into the second half.”
At the halftime horn itself, the Bears got a buzzer-beating putback basket by Cooper —as the RedStorm seemed to let up defensively once it heard an initial horn.
But that was the shot-clock horn, and Cooper kept with it — sticking back the missed top-of-the-key three-ball by Isaac Abergut.
From there, it was all a Dark Blue blaze by the Bears —as the RedStorm also failed to score a field goal for the game’s final 2:19.
Tidic totaled 18 points on 6-of-11 shooting and 4-of-4 free throws to pace the hosts, as Khamani Smith scored 10 despite battling foul trouble.
Smith picked up his third personal foul with seven minutes and five seconds remaining in the opening half.
Thomas mentioned how important it was winning Friday night’s rivalry bout —truly in front of fans, even archrival ones, for the first time in two years.
Spectator attendance during last season, of course, was highly-restricted because of the coronavirus situation —and fans were not permitted inside Waller Gymnasium.
“It was great to come out with a road victory against a rival and in an atmosphere like this. There’s a lot of history there and a lot of back-and-forth, but the atmosphere was great. We’re doing it in a way in which we’re coming together. That’s the most important part that I like to see,” said Thomas. “Guys are a family and very unselfish with their play. It’s great to see some of these guys have that success and understand that they are working for a reason. We are coming together and doing it together.”
The Bears, which fell 102-74 to the University of Saint Francis in the Bevo Francis Classic championship tilt on Saturday, returned home on Thursday night —for their Mid-South Conference opener against Tennessee Southern.
Shawnee State is back at home against Life University on Saturday (Nov. 20) at 4 p.m. —as part of an MSC doubleheader with the women’s team (vs. Life at 2 p.m.).
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @paulboggssports © 2021 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved