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November 25, 2011

Defense carries RMU to win at Palestra

It certainly wasn't pretty, but boy, was it ever effective.

Robert Morris locked down La Salle's offense, struggled through their own shooting problems, and posted a 51-44 win over the Explorers at the Palestra.

It certainly wasn't the type of game the Hoop Group had in mind when it slotted the two teams in the Philly Hoop Group Classic, but it was a clinical defensive performance by the Colonials.

"I thought our positioning was great," Robert Morris head coach Andrew Toole said on his post-game radio show. "In the first half, I thought we gave them a couple open looks from three that I thought they'd make in the second half. But I don't remember a moment in the second half like that."

Robert Morris held La Salle to 31.9 percent shooting, including a paltry 13.6 percent on three-pointers, and out-rebounded the taller Explorers 42-24.

But because of their own struggles on offense, the Colonials couldn't pull away until the final minute of the game.

"Ugly is probably not the descriptive term," Toole said of the offensive issues. "It was 19-19, some of our guys were hanging their heads a little bit at halftime because they want to score and want to make shots."

That was only after Velton Jones made a runner to tie the game at 19 at the buzzer.

"Huge. It kind of validated what we were talking about," Toole said. "That's a shot that he works on all the time and we know he can make."

So with Jones' shot giving the Colonials a fresh start in the second half, he, Lawrence Bridges, and Russell Johnson spoke up in the locker room during the break and took up Toole's mantra of continuing to worry about the defense.

"It comes down to the leadership on our team. Those guys, they set the tone," Toole said. "I never question where Lawrence and Velton's hearts and minds are."

A game after scoring a career high 38 points, Jones had a much more modest 14 on 4-of-15 shooting. But he led the charge to the free throw line - RMU went 23-of-34, 16-of-20 in the second half - and was a steadying hand on the Colonials' defense in the second half.

"Never give up, man," Jones told The Comcast Network afterward. "The score was 19-19 at the half, just never hang your head and keep playing hard and the outcome will be a win."

As Robert Morris pressed on defense, La Salle began to press on offense. The Explorers tied the game at 35 with 9:06 left to go in the game, but didn't hit another field goal until the 2:07 mark.

"They were pressing a little bit. It seemed like they were trying to go 1-on-1 at the end. We did a great job of containing their dribble and that's their specialty," Toole said. "When we went up 3, it felt like we were up by 10. Just an incredible performance by the guys tonight."

Johnson chipped in 12 points and seven rebounds, including six points down the stretch as Robert Morris finally put the game away.

"Last year he would have broken down and shot a couple of extra threes," Toole said. "He was terrific, and his 12 points and 7 rebounds were big, along with his two free throws down the stretch."

The win also helped Robert Morris shake the loss to Penn last Saturday in the same building. Though the Colonials had beaten James Madison on Tuesday, the Dukes still launched a bevy of three-pointers, which kept them in the game. This one allowed Robert Morris' defense to click back into place and left RMU leaving Philadelphia feeling much better than the last time they departed the city.

"It feels good, since we came in last week and lost to Penn," Jones said. "Just to come in and to get a win over a good La Salle team feels very good."

It's also Robert Morris' second straight win over a program from a larger conference. Some might celebrate, but the Colonials treated it clinically, just like their defensive performance and their program-record-tying 4-1 start.

"We want them to believe this is normal," Toole said. "I love the way that our guys handled it on Tuesday against JMU and tonight against La Salle. That's the kind of demeanor I want our team to have."

ColonialsCorner publisher Andrew Chiappazzi can be reached at achiappazzi@yahoo.com.

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