SPOKANE, Wash.- The flight back home will be a good one for the UMHB men’s basketball team Thursday morning.
The Crusaders are leaving behind the frigid temperatures of the Pacific Northwest with a pair of non-conference victories in tow, now 7-3 overall, and feeling confident in where they stand heading into a short Christmas break.
In Wednesday night’s highly-anticipated road duel at Whitworth, UMHB went up 44-42 at halftime, then put together a 25-12 run by the 10:25 mark of the second half, pulling away for a 19-point, 93-74 victory.
“We’re proving to ourselves that we’re a championship-level basketball team every time we take the floor,” UMHB head coach Clif Carroll said. “You can only do that against good teams.”
Whitworth, having played in each of the last 18 Northwest Conference Tournament championship games, proved to be a worthy opponent. But UMHB established itself as the better team on this particular night.
“Whitworth is good, and my hat’s off to [head coach] Damion Jablonski,” Carroll added. “He runs a great program. You go in there, look at all the banners and it’s impressive. This was a good team we beat tonight. That’s a team that’s going to be in the NCAA Tournament.”
3 takeaways from the win
UMHB’s halftime adjustments defensively made all the difference
In a back-and-forth first half, both teams shot the ball exceptionally well, with UMHB taking a 44-42 lead after the opening 20 minutes. Whitworth connected on 8-of-19 three-point attempts in that span, six of those coming from Jerry Twenge, who stepped up time and time again for the Pirates.
“He was on fire tonight,” Carroll said of Twenge. “He just couldn’t miss.”
Twenge’s three-pointers on consecutive possessions within the first three minutes guided Whitworth to an 8-2 lead, its largest of the contest. 22 of his team-leading 25 points came in the opening half, but once UMHB made its halftime adjustments, Twenge’s point production diminished.
And it was not just noticeable in the Crusaders’ approach to Twenge’s offensive prowess, as Whitworth as a team went from shooting 51.4 percent in the first half to just 36.4 percent in the second. The Pirates’ 32 second-half points were also 10 fewer than what their offensive production had been in the first.
“We went in at halftime and increased our ball pressure a little bit, and it made all the difference,” Carroll said. “We had them turning the ball over in the second half a lot, and did a nice job making simple defensive adjustments and playing with a lot of energy.”
There were three points in the first 10 minutes of the second half in which Whitworth went at least two minutes without scoring, giving way to an ever-expanding UMHB lead. It was not for a lack of effort on the offensive end from the Pirates, though the Crusaders forced Whitworth into 22 three-point attempts in the final 20 minutes, keeping the opposition out of the paint and away from short-range shots. That was a product of exceptional help-side defense, with each drive to the lane by a Pirate ballhandler met by at least two Crusaders, hands high, feet planted, ready to take away any chance of a layup. Whitworth finished the game with a mere 14 points in the paint. By comparison, UMHB had 54.
“Just like always, we’re a team that is going to take away stuff in the paint,” Carroll said. “You;re going to have to make a bunch of threes to beat us. In the first half, I thought they were going to be able to. They shot the cover off the ball in the first half. It just goes to show you, when we play hard, and play together, we can be a really good team.”
UMHB’s margin of victory was aided by the Crusaders’ best shooting performance of the year
For as strong as Whitworth was offensively in the first half, UMHB was stronger, making 17 of its 27 attempts. The Cru continued that into the second half, where 19-of-31 shots fell through the net, good enough for a crisp shooting percentage of 62.1 percent. Previously, UMHB’s best shooting night came at LeTourneau, when they converted on 60.8 percent of their attempts.
“Our guys did a good job of creating space and attacking the rim,” Carroll said.
With quality passing, and patience from the guards, UMHB’s offense executed its style of play, keeping the pace quick, finding teammates cutting to the basket, in addition to possessing a three-point shooting threat. But the Crusaders did not settle for many three-pointers, taking a total of just 15, and instead opted for opportunities closer to the rim. UMHB tallied 24 layups and turned the ball over just seven times, two signs of a well-run offense.
Adding to UMHB’s scoring opportunities was Whitworth’s defensive approach, taking on the Crusaders in one-on-one matchups, as opposed to bringing multiple defenders to the ball as UMHB players drove towards the rim.
“They made a decision tonight to try to take our three-point shooters away and limit our assist numbers,” Carroll said. “Whether that’s a good thing or not, I don’t know, but when you leave Ty Prince and Josiah Johnson one-on-one, I feel good about that matchup.”
Johnson led the team with 32 points, giving the Cru a 2-0 lead 45 seconds into the game, and stepped up with a three-pointer in the opening minutes of the second half that capped a 9-3 scoring run from UMHB for a 53-45 advantage. Prince had 24 points, on an 11-of-16 shooting night. His jumper with 3:52 left made the score 89-61, which ended up as UMHB’s largest lead.
UMHB may have taken losses early, but the effects of the tough start are paying dividends
Whitworth is the favorite to win the Northwest Conference title once again, and almost certainly will be regionally-ranked, which comes into play as the NCAA Tournament field is selected. Wednesday’s road contest was just one of several challenging matchups Carroll scheduled within the first two months of the season, and the results of those games, along with two losses at the beginning of ASC play, dropped UMHB to 3-3 overall, and completely out of the Top 25 rankings.
But Wednesday’s win proved that facing quality competition has only made the Crusaders better with adjustments, offensive execution, and an overall confidence that will serve them well throughout the second half of this season.
“We want to be one of the big dogs,” Carroll said. “And if you want to be one of the big dogs, you have to run with the big dogs. You can’t hide up on the porch.
“There’s a lot of teams who will put up good win numbers and even manufacture some strength of schedule. You can make it look good. But if the first time you play championship-caliber basketball is in the Elite Eight, you’re going to get beat. You have to test yourself. Playing up here against two really good teams is going to be something we can call back to once we get to tournament time.”
UMHB hosts Sul Ross State and Nebraska Wesleyan as part of the “Cru Classic” on Dec. 29 and Dec. 31. Both games tip off at 1 p.m. at the Mayborn Campus Center in Belton.
UMHB stat leaders
Points: Josiah Johnson (32), Ty Prince (24), Luke Feely (14)
Rebounds: Ty Prince (8), Luke Feely (5), Josiah Johnson (4)
Assists: Ty Prince (5), Josiah Johnson (3), Kyle Wright (2), Payton Brooks (2)
Team shooting stats: 62.1% FG, 26.7% 3-point, 85% FT