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January 26, 2012

RMU controls tempo, LIU in 75-66 win

The theory was pretty simple.

Andy Toole figured if his Robert Morris squad could control the tempo and have a game with scores in the 60-70 point range, his team would be in good shape against Northeast Conference leader LIU Brooklyn.

But if those points crept above 80, just like it did in Robert Morris' 85-82 overtime loss to LIU in last year's Northeast Conference championship, Toole figured the Colonials would be in trouble.

Robert Morris held LIU Brooklyn to 66 points, the fewest the Blackbirds had scored in an NEC game in 22 months, en route to a 75-66 win at the Charles L. Sewall Center.

"We defended the three for the first time in a long time. We were sharp on defense," Toole said. "We haven't really been sharp defensively in a while. So it was nice to see that even though they shot 44 percent."

LIU did hit that percentage, but they were all short range shots. The Blackbirds were just 3-of-16 from long range and had 16 total points from Jason Brickman, Michael Culpo, and C.J. Garner. Robert Morris forced 19 turnovers, an uncharacteristically high amount for LIU Brooklyn, and controlled the tempo throughout the game. LIU never led.

"Toole did a really, really great job of game-planning," guard Coron Williams said. "We knew they would probably make one, come down and get to the rim and get fouled. We knew they would get on runs, but we just wanted to make sure they didn't get any big runs."

LIU Brooklyn has traditionally stunned teams out of the gate, as the Blackbirds get early leads and put the pressure on to push the score towards the 80s. Thursday night, Robert Morris landed the first few blows, grabbing an 11-3 lead by the first media timeout. LIU coach Jim Ferry said that those first few minutes ultimately didn't push the Blackbirds back on their heels, but it allowed Robert Morris to take control and begin dictating the style of play.

"I thought they set the tone for the basketball game," Ferry said. "Whatever it was, I thought they played a great basketball game. It was all Robert Morris. They controlled the tempo."

Robert Morris led 34-26 at the half and pushed the lead up in the second half. Williams got hot for a stretch, hitting several three-pointers en route to 13 points. But it was Velton Jones once again at the center of everything for Robert Morris. Jones scored 23 points, had seven assists, and pulled down a team high six rebounds.

Jones and Toole also figured in a few impressive displays of emotion. Jones knocked down a three-pointer midway through the first half and exhorted the crowd to ratchet up the noise on his way back down the floor. Toole did his own "pump up the volume" gesture in the second half. Through some cosmic connection - or perhaps just pure coincidence - freshman guard Brandon Herman intercepted a pass just a second or two later and scored on a lay-up.

"If we would have come out with no intensity in this game, we would have dropped back even further in the standings," Jones said.

Count Ferry among those impressed.

"I think he's one of the most competitive kids in our league," Ferry said. "Take away the basketball skill he has, which is a lot, and he's just a great competitor."

Perhaps the most damage Jones did was in helping to hold LIU's guards to 16 combined points. Garner, Brickman, and Culpo went 5-for-24 from the field, 0-for-10 from three-point range, and had nine turnovers.

"Our defense tonight was probably the best in a while," Jones said. "We made mistakes but we covered it up by just playing hard and rebounding."

Toole said it was the closest Robert Morris has come to putting together a complete game. Now the question is whether Robert Morris can put together a complete weekend. St. Francis (N.Y.) visits on Saturday with a 7-2 record and the intention of proving they belong toward the top of the NEC standings.

"I don't know if we've put 40 minutes together, and I'm not sure if we've even been close to 80 for a whole weekend," Toole said. "Maybe this gives us a little bit of confidence to go on a run. The next nine games are going to be difficult."

Lucky Jones had 10 points for Robert Morris in support, while Lijah Thompson had nine. The Colonials were without Russell Johnson for the fourth straight game due to a broken thumb, and it's doubtful Johnson plays Saturday.

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

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