While 3-2 might not seem like the most impressive record to some, it’s a huge deal to a Lions team that hasn’t seen the winning side of a record sheet in over a year.
This is the case for the now-3-2 men’s basketball team, who broke the .500 plane with a huge 95-72 blowout over Drew University on Monday.
“I think we’re moving in the right direction, and I’m excited more so for the players,” head coach Kelly Williams said. “They’re having an opportunity to have some success, and they really did a great job of committing in the offseason and the preseason. It’s great for them to see some rewards, and obviously, with a young team, it’s given us some confidence early on which we didn’t have last year when we lost a couple of tough games early.”
The Lions had four scorers in double digits and 15 different players put points on the board — unprecedented in any level of basketball. The depth has been there all season for the Lions, who have a quickly-gelling mix of upperclassmen leaders and underclassmen playmakers.
“I think we’re utilizing our strength, and our strength right now is our depth,” Williams said. “We probably could start any one of our 16 guys, 17 guys on our roster. So it’s just nice to have a little more depth and luxury, and that’s our game plan, to utilize our depth.”
Freshman forward/center Kyle Cancillieri had another standout game — scoring 15 points, grabbing a huge 14 boards and dishing out four assists to go with a steal and a block. The rebounds are a welcome sight to a team that has struggled in the past on the glass and lost their leading rebounder from last season.
“Lately we’ve been getting dominated on the boards, so I knew someone had to step up, someone’s got to get up and get some rebounds,” Cancillieri said. “I was just trying to get some rebounds for the team.”
Cancillieri, sophomore forward Sky Ettin and freshman guard Emmanuel Matlock have been a force hustling for the team this year, grabbing rebounds and getting after the ball on every possession.
“We have to get energy somehow, and that’s what helps the team win, so I’ve got to keep doing that,” Ettin said. “I mean, hustle plays count a lot. We get extra baskets, we force turnovers, we get in the other team’s head and let them know we’re not soft and we’re not going to quit playing.”
This new mentality has led to the team’s first winning record since the 2009-10 season.
“It feels great, and to win two home games back-to-back, it feels great,” Matlock said.
Matlock has stepped in and taken a lot of the time at point guard as a freshman, filling the stat sheet in different ways. He had seven points, four assists, four steals and three rebounds against the Rangers.
“(I just) calm down, and make that one pass, and the offense kind of does itself,” Matlock said.
Matlock is still a young player, but faith from the coaching staff has put him in a major role to begin the season.
“We understand that he’s a freshman, but he’s been around and he’s doing an excellent job right now,” Williams said. “He’s a competitor, he’s extremely tough and he has a nice feel for the game.”
While it was hard to pick out the best individual performance against Drew, the best play of the game was loud and clear — an alley-oop pass to Cancillieri on a beautiful back door play.
“Coach set up a little back door for me, (to) get the crowd into it, and, fortunately, it worked,” Cancillieri said.
“We work on that (play), and I think that’s the luxury of having an athlete like (Cancillieri),” Williams said. “We haven’t had that luxury in the last couple years to have an athlete with that kind of athletic ability to call a play (like an alley-oop).”
The win against Drew gave the team a two-game winning streak after a tight win over Rowan on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 74-70. While the team has been out-rebounded in every contest this year, they’ve kept it a lot closer than it was last year.
“That’s an area that we still have to improve as we go into the NJAC, because their teams are still bigger and stronger and things along those lines,” Williams said. “But it’s nice to see that there’s some positive results coming off of their energy in regards to rebounding the basketball.”
Even with a two-game win streak, the team is not satisfied.
“It’s my first year here, so it’s kind of a new culture this year than it was last year here,” Ettin said. “It feels good and we’ve just got to keep pushing it. We’re not happy with two, no way.”