Despite all the buzz surrounding new head coach Kelly Williams, it was another former Mercer County Community College attendee who propelled the men’s basketball team to victory Saturday.
Falling in line with Kelly’s aggressive new-look offense, speedy junior point guard Eric Blackmon-Hayes took full advantage of his debut as a Lions starter, converting a three-point play with seconds left to lift the Lions over the visiting Lehman College Lightning, 65-59.
“I’m so happy, not just for myself but for the players,” an elated Williams said. “They worked so hard in preseason, and it was nice to come out and get the ‘W’ in front of a packed house Saturday.”
Hayes, who led all Lion scorers with a career-high 13 points, stripped a Lehman player with less than 20 seconds to go. The first-time starter exploded to the other end of the court, swooping in with a layup as he was fouled. Hayes drained his attempt from the charity stripe to double the Lion lead and lock the final score.
“That’s what I expect from Eric,” Williams said. “He’s the type of player who is going to do more positive things than negative things over the course of 40 minutes.”
Junior forward Aaron Syverstern backed up Hayes with 12 points, contributing largely to a second-half surge that saw the Lions go up 60-43. But the Lightning, led by senior guard Duane Rhoden’s 24-point performance, worked their way back into the contest. A late 14-0 run put the Lightning within three before Hayes sank two free throws to put the Lions up 62-57.
While the new head coach was delighted with the Lions’ offensive play, he said the near-collapse late in the second half proved the team is still finding themselves.
“In the second half, our players got comfortable and made some shots,” Williams said. “But with a team that’s trying to find its identity, we didn’t finish the game as strong as we would have liked. We stayed aggressive late, but we were not smart and Lehman got some momentum.”
“Our next step is that we have to be consistent the entire 40 minutes,” he continued. “That’s how you become a great basketball team.”
Williams’ aggressive offensive philosophy seemed to pay off, as the Lions shot 50 percent from the field in the second half and out-rebounded the Lightning 41-33.
Co-captain guards senior Jeff Molinelli and junior Jay Frank stayed out of the spotlight while contributing to the Lion victory. Molinelli turned in a solid defensive performance, blocking a shot and snaring three steals, while Frank had nine points on the afternoon.
The Lions returned to action last night when they traveled to New York for a non-conference matchup with Brooklyn College. Tip-off was set for 5 p.m.
James Queally can be reached at email@example.com.