When junior reserve guard Nick Barney buried an NBA-range three-pointer late in the second half of a non-conference match-up with Ohio University (Eastern), the crowd inside Morrow Field House erupted in cheers and the home bench raised their arms to the ceiling and cat-called the sparingly used transfer from nearby Beaver county.
Holding a 39-point lead over the Panthers with 3:11 left to play, Slippery Rock men’s basketball (2-4) allowed the back-ups to run free as Barney, freshman forward Will Bounds and freshman guard Jason Fowlkes combined for 33 points.
Barney’s sharpshooting, 12 points in 15 minutes, and Bounds’ and Fowlkes’ athletic dunks and layups delighted the starting unit who lounged on the bench for most of the second half.
All was right for the Slippery Rock men’s basketball team… well, not exactly.
Those in attendance for the first half would have been hard-pressed to bet on The Rock winning by 40 points as the 115-75 final score indicated.
Despite outshooting the Panthers, dominating the rebound totals and generating twice as many assists, the first half lead only stood at 15 points. A 54-39 halftime lead was not expected against the team the Green and White scored 143 on the previous season and had not lost to in 13 previous match-ups.
The less than ideal first half did not sit well with Slippery Rock acting coach Ian Grady and star forward Micah Till said the message from Grady at the half was well received.
“Coach got into us. I would say it was a little bit, but it was a lot,” admitted Till. “He told us to get ourselves together and that we were playing like trash and it was embarrassing. So, we wanted to come out and prove that we were embarrassed, too.”
Responding with efficient free-throw shooting and a dominating effort from Till, the Green and White rode a 36-4 run to begin the second half. Leading the Panthers by 47 points with 11 minutes and some change left in the game, the starting unit was used sparingly throughout the latter portion of the second half.
Till led all Rock players with 27 points on 11 of 14 shooting. The All-American pulled in 11 rebounds, dished out five assists and recorded a number of highlight reel blocks. Sixth man Jared Armstrong connected with a team-leading four three-pointers in route to another 20-point game.
It was redshirt senior forward Vinny Lasley, however, who turned in perhaps the most well-rounded effort on the night. Grady said that Lasley exemplifies what a true team player looks like.
“I love having [Lasley] around,” said Grady. “He’s just a great teammate all around and a great guy. He plays so hard and he’s so invaluable.”
In addition to his usual high-motor defense, Lasley shot 60 percent from the field for 13 points. The 6’6” senior from Tama, Iowa corralled a career-high 17 rebounds and tied career-highs in assists and blocks with four and two, respectively.
Despite the all-around stellar individual effort, Lasley said that he feels as though the team is capable of producing much better results. Lasley pointed to the energy level to start the game as an area of improvement.
“It felt good,” commented Lesley on his big game. “But I don’t think overall we played too good of a game or up to our abilities.”
Inconsistent effort aside, The Rock’s man-on-man defense, which limited the Panthers to just 36.2 percent from the field and 28.1 percent from-three-point range, forced 23 turnovers and encouraging signs are abound heading into Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference play.
While acknowledging the growth of his team through the game, Grady said that he is still focused on building a close-knit team that will band together down the stretch in tight games.
“We have a lot of things we need to correct and improve on. I think communication, I think playing hard for consistent stretches of time,” explained Grady. “We go through stretches of time where we get complacent so we’re trying to correct that to where we are giving the same energy and focus level through the entire game.”
Concluding the non-conference portion of the schedule with a 2-4 record may not befit a team predicted to finish second in the PSAC West but a combined margin of 17 points across the four losses shows bad luck but also a need to improve closing out games.
A commanding win in which the team defense clicked, set plays began working and a few players had a breakout game left Till hopeful for the game being a turning point in the young season.
“Hopefully this starts a winning streak. We can go to East Stroudsburg and start the PSAC season off right,” remarked Till. “For me, I need to pick up my rebounding but other than that, continue to do what I’m doing and be a leader.”
PSAC play begins Monday, Dec. 3 on the road against 2018 PSAC Champ East Stroudsburg University. Not only looking for a fast start in the conference, The Rock will look to notch their first road win of the season against the Warriors. Tip-off is set for 5 p.m.