Above photo of Josiah Johnson by Olivia Champion/@byoliviarayn. Johnson scored 31 points in Thursday’s win.
ABILENE, Texas- Up to this point, the offensive attack of UMHB, the nation’s ninth-ranked team, has been stellar, averaging 95.0 points per game. But that is not what will make or break this team. At least head coach Clif Carroll does not think so. It is the defense that will be critical as the Crusaders move further into ASC play, having defeated McMurry 86-67 on Thursday night.
“I don’t worry a whole lot offensively,” Carroll said postgame, “as long as we’re moving the ball, sharing it, and finding good shots. The success of this team is ultimately going to come down to defense.”
After playing what Carroll called a “terrible” first half, allowing McMurry to score 20 points in the paint, the Crusaders responded well in the second half, pulling away as they began guarding the rim. It gave UMHB its first ASC road win of the year, as the Cru moved to 5-0 on the season, and 2-0 in conference play.
“We started guarding the rim,” Carroll said of what changed in the second half. “You can’t let teams, especially teams that aren’t going to shoot it great, go to the rim and get layups.”
Layups were a major source of McMurry’s first-half points, as it took little time for the shots to fall for both teams. The Cru led 8-7 three minutes in, but consecutive fast-break layups from the War Hawks gave McMurry an 11-8 advantage, a point in the game that Carroll noted was a turning point.
“Those guys were ready to play,” Carroll said of McMurry. “Teams are going to play their best game against us. We know that. We just had to shut them down, make sure we take care of what we do, and find a way to put together runs of our own.”
The opponents traded layups for the next three minutes, before a Ty Prince jumper and Nathan Stolz free-throw put UMHB back in front, 16-15. An 11-5 scoring run with less than 10 minutes remaining in the first half allowed the Crusaders to pull away, taking a 29-22 lead. It was Josiah Johnson who ignited that scoring spurt, as the junior converted on a layup before draining a three-pointer on each of UMHB’s next two possessions.
The visitors from Belton held a slim five-point lead at halftime, 41-36, as McMurry had managed to remain within striking distance behind eight points from guard TJ Hilliard.
But the lead did not stay within single digits for long, as UMHB opened the second half on an 8-2 run. Prince and Sam Reaves, who each finished in double figures in scoring, connected on back-to-back threes on the Cru’s second and third possessions of the half. It led to a 51-38 lead for Carroll’s squad, who never again allowed the margin to dwindle to single digits.
Slowly the Crusaders added to their advantage, widening their lead to 21 points with 4:23 left in the game on a Payton Brooks three-pointer. UMHB outrebounded McMurry 39-34, and following Carroll’s message “to play with aggressiveness” earlier in the week, displayed an unmatched aggressiveness in the second half that yielded 10 steals.
“In the second half, we were ok,” Carroll said. “In the first half we struggled a little bit with playing hard. I’ve been on them all week, saying ‘Play hard, play hard.’ We’re trying to teach them what it means to play hard. A lot goes into playing hard.”
Carroll and the Cru have one day off before retaking the court in Abilene, this time at Hardin-Simmons, who is 8-1 on the year after defeating a solid Concordia (TX) squad 99-76 on Thursday.
“Behind us, Hardin-Simmons, I felt like, was the next best team [in the ASC] last year,” Carroll said. “Especially at the end of the year. They were playing such good basketball. We both didn’t play well in the tournament, but I feel like we were the better teams. It’s the same thing here. They’ve played a good schedule, beat everybody except for Trinity, and that was a close game. This is their chance to get us at home.”
Johnson led UMHB with 31 points, and Prince added 18. Sam Reaves was the third Crusader in double figures with 10 points. Prince added a team-high eight rebounds and Johnson recorded three steals, as well as three assists.