Above photo by Luke Zayas/True To The Cru
BELTON- UMHB head coach Clif Carroll does not mind the long road trips that are commonplace in D-III basketball. In fact, he has found a way to embrace them, no matter how long or taxing they might be.
As the head coach at Sul Ross State two years ago, an American Southwest Conference counterpart of Mary Hardin-Baylor located in the rural West Texas city of Alpine, where bus trips were regularly upwards of six or seven hours, Carroll found an intangible within his team.
“The road was a double-edged sword [at Sul Ross],” Carroll said Tuesday. “We definitely lost some games because of the miles we would put on. But I feel like we won more games because of it. We were tough, we were together. Those are things you develop on the road.”
The Crusaders, currently atop the ASC standings with a 7-1 record, are set to make their longest road trip of the season this weekend, facing East Texas Baptist Thursday at 7:30 p.m. CT before tipping off at Belhaven in Jackson, Miss. on Saturday at 3 p.m. CT.
UMHB is coming off a week that featured three straight wins, as the Cru used notable second-half efforts in beating Sul Ross State by a score of 94-81 Thursday, and Howard Payne, 94-59 Saturday afternoon. In each of those performances, with forwards Ty Prince, averaging 17.3 points per game, and Sam Reaves (3.4 PPG) unavailable, as well as guard Kyle Wright (4.4 PPG), the Crusaders’ depth was shown.
“We’ve been able to play several guys,” Carroll said after Saturday’s win. “The last couple of games, Josiah [Johnson] has been the only one over 30 minutes per game. In a week with three games, if you’re able to keep fresh legs, it shows that you have a lot of quality players. That’s the sign of a team that’s built to win when it comes to tournament time.”
ETBU presents a significant challenge for the Cru’s offense, as the Tigers have limited opponents to just 71.5 points per game, and lead the ASC in rebounding margin with an average of 4.5 more boards per contest than the opposition. A 4-4 conference record is misleading, considering the quality of defense ETBU has played.
“You look at the film, and think, ‘This is a top of the line team’,” Carroll said, noting that the record does not tell the full story. “Talent-wise, they’re as good as anybody we’re going to face all year long. They have a little bit of everything.”
The Tigers have plenty of athleticism to go around, according to Carroll’s assessment, led by 6’7 sophomore Darryl Moore, who has a team-best 7.0 rebounds per game to go along with an average of 14.2 points each contest. Guard Ryan Elzy plays well on the perimeter with a conference-best 2.4 steals per game, and 6’5 forward Chris Haynes has blocked 11 shots this season.
But the Cru has the talent to match that, with an offensive scheme that has produced 89.3 points per game, paced by the performances of guard Josiah Johnson, who tallied 42 in the Jan. 3 111-101 victory over Concordia. Johnson is second in the country in total points scored this season, 329, and is 69 points away from breaking the career 1,000-point mark, but also got the rest of the offense involved more over the course of the last three games, dishing out four assists on Saturday.
“To see the unselfishness of Josiah over the last two games, to sacrifice trying to get shot attempts to really get everybody else involved, really proves that kid deserves to be in the conversation for National Player of the Year, First Team All-American, and whatever other accolades there are,” Carroll said of Johnson.
UMHB will also be preparing for a Belhaven team on Saturday that leads the conference in three-point field goals made, with an average of 9.6 per game. That outside scoring ability will force the Crusaders’ defense on the perimeter more than against ETBU’s offense, though Carroll noted the Cru will stick with what has worked for the last seven games, all victories.
“We gameplan and do things, but at the core of everything, we’re not going to change what we do,” Carroll said. “We’re going to play our tough man-to-man defense, run our motion offense, and keep a lot of pressure on guys. Those things don’t change. That makes it easier to make minor tweaks to prepare for each game.”
UMHB’s contest Thursday in Marshall will be played inside Ornelas Gym. The game is set to be broadcasted on goetbutigers.com.
Riley Zayas is the managing editor of True To The Cru. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.