File Photo: Josiah Johnson (pictured) had a team-high 22 points as UMHB took down UW-Stout in Friday’s season opener in Bloomington
BLOOMINGTON, Ill.–For the better portion of Friday’s season opener against UW-Stout, UMHB held the lead. In fact, after taking a 10-8 advantage on Connor Zamiara’s driving layup with 14:09 in the first half, UMHB never relinquished its lead, emerging with an 84-61 victory.
But the Blue Devils remained within striking distance, utilizing fast pace on offense and full court pressure on defense. With 7:54 left in the game, Aidan Shore’s jumper cut the Crusader advantage to single digits, 66-57.
Then came a 12-3 scoring run from the visitors from Belton. Josiah Johnson connected on his third 3-pointer of the night. Payton Brooks added another from beyond the arc, and Zachary Engels scored on a layup. 22 seconds later, it was Engels who lofted a cross-court pass to a sprinting Kyle Wright, who easily laid the ball in for a 78-60 lead with 5:11 to play.
The win puts UMHB into the championship game of the Sikma Hall of Fame Invitational, setting up a contest at 5 p.m. on Saturday against Illinois Wesleyan, the tournament hosts. IWU beat Ohio Wesleyan on Friday, 84-55.
“It’s going to take a little while for us to hit our stride,” UMHB head coach Clif Carroll said postgame. “Unfortunately, we’re playing good teams, so we don’t have the luxury of playing bad. I don’t think we played great, but we didn’t play bad. There’s a lot of excitement about this team.”
Both teams pushed the pace heavily right out of the gate, but it was UW-Stout who gained the 6-0 lead less than two minutes into the contest, with Brody Fox’s fast-break dunk energizing the Blue Devil bench.
But then came UMHB’s 10-2 scoring run and its first lead of the game on Zamiara’s driving layup. Fox countered with a layup of his own for Stout, but then came a Wright 3-pointer, made possible when LD Butler pulled down a missed shot in the paint near the end of the shot clock and wrestled it away from a Blue Devil defender, retaining possession for The Cru.
It was that sort of effort that was absent from UMHB’s performance early in the opening half, but improved as the game progressed.
“It wasn’t the shooting that was the issue,” Carroll remarked postgame. “It was the effort. It was so disappointing. You have four returners out there. Four guys who should know what it takes to play high-level basketball. We needed to come out better than that.
“Overall, we finally got it going a little bit. That second group was flying around. A lot of those new guys were getting in there in their first experience. I was proud of those guys.”
Carroll notably spent several years under the tutelage of the late Hall of Fame head coach Bob Knight at Texas Tech, and in those early minutes, when the effort lacked and UW-Stout held the lead, Carroll had to channel his “inner Knight” in a way, aiming to get the Crusaders back on track. What made it even better was that UMHB was playing in Bloomington, Illinois, the same name as the city one state over where Knight turned the University of Indiana into a national powerhouse. And better yet, Carroll was wearing a red sweater that resembled those Knight that wore at IU, as a tribute to Knight, who passed away on Nov. 1.
“I wore my red sweater, so I had to channel Coach Knight a little bit,” Carroll said. “Coach Knight wouldn’t have stood for that effort, so I’m not going to stand for it.”
With 6:43 left in the first half, Brooks got a hand on a shot from UW-Stout’s Brenden Weis, controlled the ball, and quickly got it up the floor. Eli Beard took the ball in stride and laid it off the glass for a 26-15 lead, UMHB’s first double-digit advantage of the contest.
“Those guards that come off the bench, [Maurice Pinnock] and Eli are electric,” Carroll said. “It is instant. They’re not the kind of guys that have to go out there and feel the rhythm. They just go in there and make an impact offensively and defensively.”
In their UMHB debuts, Pinnock tallied 19 points, 11 of which came in the first half, and Beard had 12. A total of 39 points came off the bench for The Cru.
“We knew we needed to get a little quicker at the guard spot, and a little more athletic and dynamic,” Carroll added. “Insert Mo and Eli and now here we are.”
Johnson had just three points in the first half, held to a 1-of-8 shooting mark. He came back with 19 in the second-half, including a three-point play that made it 52-41 with 16:35 left. But even with Johnson held to a low-scoring first 20 minutes, the Crusaders maintained their offensive production, leading 42-35 at halftime. It was an early positive and testament to the depth on the roster.
“That means a lot for this team,” Carroll noted. “In past years, when Jo has had halves like this, we’ve been in a hole. We’ve dug out, but it’s nice to know that even when he’s not playing the way he should, we’re fine. In the past, that’s been tough.”
UMHB also came up with 24 turnovers in the contest, leading to 35 points off turnovers. By comparison, the Crusaders turned the ball over just seven times on offense, with only one of those leading to a score for Stout. And that “score” was just a single free throw.
“We created a lot of turnovers, a lot of transition buckets,” Carroll said. “And in big spots. They made a run and cut it to seven and then we created three straight turnovers right there. Situational basketball was pretty good today.”
Carroll added that a couple of players were unavailable for the matchup who will return in the future, only adding to UMHB’s depth and talent level as the first month of the season progresses.
“What you see is not a finished product,” Carroll said. “We’re going to be better. We have guys who really didn’t play tonight who are capable of impacting games. We just have to continue to work. I’m excited about this team.”
And most importantly, UMHB is 1-0.
Saturday’s championship game can be seen on iwusports.com as UMHB looks to end its first weekend of the season with an undefeated mark.