When a team loses its first two home games in a week, it’s a hard thing to bounce back from. Someone forgot to tell that to the Lions, who dropped home games to Centenary College and Richard Stockton College before knocking off Kean University on the road for their first win.
The Lions (1-4) were fueled by a monster performance from sophomore guard Alex Fox who poured in 31 points, 21 of them coming in the second half. Shooting 10 of 14 from the field, Fox was the most efficient scorer on the floor. He also tallied five rebounds and four assists.
“Alex has been battling some injuries in the pre-season and is just starting to get healthier,” head coach Kelly Wiliams said. “I thought it was time to use some of his experience and energy in the starting line up and it was nice to see that he responded.”
The College’s defense was ferocious in the first half, holding the Cougars to only 20 points. They had an 18-point lead with 6:51 left to play, and despite a late Kean run, held on to win 63-53.
“On Saturday, we did an excellent job communicating on the defensive end,” Williams said. “We hope that we can duplicate that same energy and attention detail for an entire game and the rest of the season.”
Junior forward Skyelar Ettin was second in scoring for the College with 16 points. Junior forward Joe Kane also pitched in with seven points and seven big rebounds.
The play of sophomore guard Jayson Johnson was something Williams was certainly happy with. Despite an off shooting night, Johnson had an all-around solid game with six points, nine rebounds and five assists.
“Jayson Johnson did an excellent job controlling the tempo of the game,” Williams said.
In their home opener, the Lions saw another late run fall short against Centenary College in an 87-78 defeat.
The game was close early on, but seven straight Cyclone points made it seem like the College was in for another offensive slump. However, Johnson connected on two layups in a row, while Ettin nailed a jumper to get the Lions right back in it. Ettin finished with a career-best 26 points on the day.
The back-and-forth struggle continued until Centenary began to take control with a 64-47 lead late in the second half, and eventually held a 20-point lead with three minutes to go.
One player who wouldn’t go quietly was junior guard Matt Rista, who scored 14 points in the final three minutes of the game to spur the Lions on a 15-2 run and bring them within five of the Cyclones. Unfortunately, time was not on the College’s side, and good free-throw shooting by Centenary sealed the game. Rista totaled 19 points.
What was maddening about the loss was that the Lions forced an impressive 29 turnovers while only turning the ball over eight times themselves. The battle on the glass was where they lost it, being outrebounded 49-35. Centenary’s Andy Charles was an absolute monster, tallying 24 points and 21 rebounds. The College had no answer for him.
“Rebounding seems to always be an area of concern for us every year,” Williams said. “We have to continue to work on rebounding everyday in practice and hope it translates to success on game day. With so many injuries and size disadvantages, we have to team rebound and position ourselves better when the ball is in the air.”
In the home game against Richard Stockton, the College was overpowered and ran into a team on fire. The Ospreys shot 59.3 percent from the field, including sinking half of their shots from downtown, to coast to an 81-53 win.
The Lions never really stood a chance as another stagnant first half led to a 47-25 deficit at the break. This hole, however, was one that the College was unable to dig themselves out of to make it a close game. For Richard Stockton, Rameel Johnson and Darnell McCargo led the way with 17 and 14 points, respectively. Carlton Whitehead produced an eye-popping stat line of seven points, eight rebounds and six assists, creeping towards what could have been a triple-double.
What was encouraging was seeing Fox make an immediate impact in his first game in the starting lineup. Fox led the team in scoring, rebounding and steals with 16, six and three. This performance led to his outburst against Kean that should keep him starting for good. Ettin continued his strong play with 13 points and four rebounds, while sophomore Johnson netted 10 points of his own.
Rista, the Lions’ best player of the season so far, had an off game, contributing only four points and making only one of his eight shots. He did make his presence felt on the boards by pulling down five rebounds, but the College struggled again on the glass, being outrebounded by a margin of 34-21.
The College will look to build off of its winning ways at home on Wednesday against Rutgers-Camden University. Soon, they’ll have a stretch of games over winter break that will help them learn more about themselves as a team.
“The players have been really working hard, so it was nice for them to be rewarded with a conference road win,” Williams said. “We hope that we continue to build on our play from Saturday’s game.”