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January 14, 2012

Resilient RMU hangs on for win

There are times in conference play where teams have to be more resilient than impressive.

Robert Morris started Saturday's game against Sacred Heart attempting to jump start a team that had lost two straight in uncharacteristic fashion. The Colonials exited the game with a win, but with their fingernails bloody from hanging on as their lead dwindled.

Robert Morris won 70-67 after Sacred Heart erased a 12-point lead. The Colonials held on despite not having Russell Johnson (broken thumb) for the entire game and losing Coron Williams (ankle/foot) with 12:50 to go in the second half. The Colonials even missed freshman David Appolon, who had some success defending Sacred Heart's Shane Gibson. Appolon didn't play the final nine minutes as he worked through his own ailments on a stationary bike.

"I'm glad our guys were able to persevere through those things, but we have so much to work through that it's scary," head coach Andy Toole said. "We have to really clean things up in order to beat some of the good teams and pass some road tests."

Toole attempted to clean a few things up with a new lineup. With Johnson out, Lucky Jones was inserted into the starting lineup for his first career start. But the freshman wasn't alone, as Toole sat Mike McFadden and Velton Jones in favor of Lijah Thompson and Anthony Myers.

"I just didn't like the dynamic of our team. I told them yesterday I think aliens invaded our locker room and took over our team," Toole said. "I don't think it was time to wait. I thought it was something for this team to lose two games the way we did, and the way we performed in those games, I just really felt we needed to do something."

Part of that included reminding Jones and McFadden that starting was a privilege, not a right, as well as trying to find a better defensive mix at the outset of the game.

"I think it was a failed experiment, but what I wanted to try and do was to create some defensive energy in the first part of the game," Toole said. "In the Quinnipiac game, our guys were kind of just trotting around for the first three or four minutes."

It may have worked in one way, and that was allowing Williams to have his best game of the new year. The redshirt sophomore scored 20 points, including 10 of the Colonials' first 12 of the second half. That came despite missing most of the final 12 minutes of the second half.

"He was aggressive. He hunted shots, which good shooters have to do," Toole said. "He's got to be aggressive looking for his shot, and then once he started going, guys started looking for him."

The new mix didn't get Robert Morris in front to stay until Velton Jones hit a three-pointer to make it 20-19 with 6:56 to go in the first half. Robert Morris went on to take a 37-30 halftime lead, and seemed poised to take over the game. McFadden scored on a lay-up to make it 53-38 with 11:31 to go in the game.

Williams was out by that point, and Appolon, who had done fairly well in limiting Gibson, went out for the final time at 8:07. Robert Morris led 57-45 at that point, and the lead quickly evaporated.

"They kept fighting and we kind of got a little relaxed," Velton Jones said. "We didn't do the little things to try and finish the game out."

Just four minutes later, Robert Morris was clinging to a 62-61 lead. Sacred Heart eventually tied it at 67 with 2:37 to go. Thompson turned the ball over and Sacred Heart had a chance to take its first lead since midway through the first half, but Louis Montes missed a lay-up. The two teams traded missed shots until Lawrence Bridges was fouled on a rebound.

Bridges, one of the team's worst foul shooters at 36 percent, calmly knocked down two free throws to give Robert Morris a 69-67 lead with 51 seconds left. Sacred Heart had an inbounds play with 30 seconds left, but the ball never found its way to Gibson's hands. Montes put up a wild three-pointer at the end of the shot clock, and Bridges was fouled again on the rebound. He sank one of two free throws. Gibson rushed a three-pointer, and this time it was Thompson who came down with a rebound and got fouled with two seconds left.

Though Thompson missed both free throws, Sacred Heart had no timeouts for the rebound and to get a good shot off at the end. Gibson finished with 29 points for Sacred Heart, and Velton Jones graded the Colonials' defensive performance an F because of that.

"Defense on him was terrible. He finished with 29," Jones said. "This kid can shoot. I thought I did pretty good closing out with a hand in his face. You can't give him any type of space. He had enough and made them."

Though he wasn't happy with his team's defensive performance or his own, Jones did have a strong game. The redshirt junior finished with 18 points, five assists, three steals, and just one turnover.

"I had to come off the bench and try and give some energy to my team," Jones said of the benching. "It wasn't a negative reaction. It was more of a positive and try and give some energy."

Toole wasn't wild about his new starting unit's performance and said he'll do some tinkering, but he said he was glad to see it at least got Jones back on track.

"I didn't know how we was going to respond, to be honest with you," Toole said. "I thought he responded very well and I'm proud of him for that."

Jones and Williams were the only ones in double-figures for Robert Morris, though McFadden had nine points and eight different players scored. Lucky Jones, Bridges, and Thompson combined for 24 rebounds.

With the small losing streak over, Robert Morris has road games against Fairleigh Dickinson and Monmouth next on the schedule before a difficult homestand against Long Island and St. Francis (N.Y.).

"We just have to get back to these winning ways, because losing sucks," Velton Jones said.

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

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