The Shepherd Rams men’s basketball team (3-5, 2-3 MEC) could not hang onto an early lead against the West Liberty Hilltoppers (8-0, 5-0 MEC) Wednesday evening, Dec. 6, losing by a 99-80 score at home in the Butcher Center in Shepherdstown, W.Va.
In the first half, the Rams got out to a 21-5 lead by making several three-pointers that opened up their inside game. By making seven three-pointers in the first half, the Rams stretched the Hilltoppers’ defense, making the Hilltoppers’ confused as to how to best guard the Rams.
Early on, it was a three-man show for the Rams. Sophomore guard Thomas Lang and senior guard Steffen Davis lit up the scoreboard with two three-pointers each within the first two and a half minutes of the game. Davis and Lang would finish with the second and third-highest point totals on the team, compiling 19 and 18 points, respectively.
Davis also pulled down five rebounds and finished with two assists in the contest.
Down low, junior forward Winston Burgess had four key points to help guide the Rams to an early 21-5 lead. Burgess had a very efficient game for the Rams, leading the team with six rebounds and scoring with 21 points by making seven out of his nine field goal attempts.
Senior forward AJ Carr also delivered a valuable performance for the Rams, finishing with 17 points on the night by making four out of his nine field goal attempts. At the free throw line, Carr shot 75 percent (9-12). Carr additionally recorded four rebounds for the Rams.
After the Rams handed it to the unbeaten Hilltoppers the first four and a half minutes or so, the Hilltoppers finally woke up offensively. In the first few minutes of the game, the Rams’ defense was able to limit the Hilltoppers’ potent offensive attack, but this trend would not continue for the whole game.
Once the Hilltoppers started moving the ball better and playing their game offensively, the Rams simply had no answers to contain them.
The Hilltoppers unleashed a three-point barrage on the Rams, making nine three-pointers and shooting 56.25 percent from three-point range (9-16) in the first half.
Offensively, the Hilltoppers had a diverse array of scorers that really overwhelmed the Rams’ defense. Junior forward James Griffin, redshirt-freshman guard Dalton Bolon, and graduate guard Dan Monteroso all were instrumental in propelling the Hilltoppers to take the lead back in the first half from the Rams with their excellent play offensively.
Montersoso was a problem for the Rams to deal with all game long. On the night, Monteroso posted 27 points, four rebounds, and five assists, hurting the Rams in numerous ways.
Griffin had a similar night for the Hilltoppers. He finished with 23 points by making half of his shots (6-12), including making three out of his seven three-point attempts. Griffin also had seven rebounds, as it was clear that the Rams could not stop him at times.
Bolon fouled out with 2:09 to play in the second half, but not before making 19 points by sinking half of his shot attempts (5-10). From the three-point line, Bolon was lethal by making all four of his shots from three-point range. Bolon also contributed five rebounds in the winning effort.
During the Hilltoppers’ first half run to take the lead back from the Rams, virtually every made basket was either a three-pointer or a free throw. The Hilltoppers’ did not really have a mid-range game in the first half, as the Hilltoppers counted largely on their three-point shooting to get them back into the game.
After the game, through email, the head coach of the Rams, Justin Namolik, cited the three-point shot as a major reason as to how the Hilltoppers were able to get back into the game.
“West Liberty came into the game averaging 17 3s [three-pointers] per game. They were able to get back into the game with the 3 [three] point shot, they were 9-16 from 3 [three-point range] in the first half and finished 13-26 for the game, ” Namolik said.
Namolik also gave his thoughts on what the Hilltoppers do so well offensively.
“They shoot the three well and crash the offensive glass and get second chance points,” Namolik said.
To Namolik’s point, the Hilltoppers had 14 second chance points, while the Rams had just nine second chance points themselves. Winning the rebounding battle by a 41-34 count helped the Hilltoppers come out on top in this portion of the game.
The three-point shot largely carried the Hilltoppers to halftime with a 53-46 lead. Unfortunately for the Rams, the scoring onslaught for the Hilltoppers was just getting started.
While the Hilltoppers were still effective from three-point range in the second half by making 40 percent (4-10) of their shots in this department, it was clear that the Hilltoppers’ game plan was to get the ball inside and attack the heart of the Rams’ defense.
In the second half alone, the Hilltoppers shot 21 free throw attempts, making 16 of them (76.19%). The Rams’ defense likely had an eye on the three-point line, trying to contain the Hilltoppers’ deadly shooters, which opened up favorable matchups inside.
The Rams’ defense was scrambling to stop the Hilltoppers, but could not generate enough defensive stops to get back into the game.
After shooting 51.61 percent in the first half (16-31), the Rams did not execute at as high of a level in the second half. Whether it was due to the Hilltoppers’ better defensive play or mental mistakes, the Rams’ shooting percentage dipped to 37.04 percent (10-27) in the second half.
Scoring just 34 points in the second half was not enough to keep pace with the Hilltoppers, who had found new life offensively in the first half that carried over into the second half.
This ultimately led to a missed opportunity for the Rams to secure an impressive home win, as the Hilltoppers would maintain control of the game and close it out for a 99-80 road win.
For the game, the Hilltoppers shot 47.6 percent (30-63), including making half of their three-point shots (13-26). The free throw line was another important source of offense for the Hilltoppers, as a team they made 26 out of 34 (76.5%) of their shots in this department.
The Rams shot a similar percentage of 44.8 percent (26-58), but did not have as much success as the Hilltopper did from the three-point line. However, the Rams still made 37 percent of their three-pointers (10-27).
The free throw gap was another reason the Rams lost this game, as the Hilltoppers had a plus eight advantage in this category. For the game, the Rams shot 26 free throws and made just 18 of them (69.2%).
Things do not get any easier for the Rams, as this Saturday, Dec. 9, the team will head to Wheeling, W.Va., to take on the Wheeling Jesuit Cardinals, who have a 7-1 overall record and a 4-1 record in the Mountain East Conference (MEC).
Namolik explained what the team has to work on before the road game on Saturday against the Cardinals.
“We need to put this game behind us and respond in practice the next two days to prepare for another game against a top ten team,” Namolik said.”
The Rams will have a few days to take what they learned from this game and make necessary adjustments. Saturday’s game starts at 4 p.m.
Anthony Bracken is the Sports Editor of The Picket. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org