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February 4, 2012

RMU defense wakes up as Colonials rally

For the first 17 minutes Saturday against Mount St. Mary's, a cavern appeared to be opening up underneath Robert Morris.

They trailed their rival by 13 on the road, lacked composure, were deep in foul trouble, and were on pace to allow the Northeast Conference's least potent offensive team to score 80 or more points.

Then something changed. Robert Morris' beleagured defense woke up, the Colonials found their passion and intensity, and the game went from being a potentially demoralizing loss to a crucial win. Mount St. Mary's made just eight shots from the field in the final 23 minutes of the game as Robert Morris won 67-62.

"For a team that's lost two in a row, sometimes when that stuff happens, you remember what losing was like," head coach Andy Toole said on his post-game radio show. "They just stayed with it."

Down 32-19 with 3:34 to go in the first half, Robert Morris closed the period on a 9-1 run. They extended that run to a 22-3 sprint in the first 5:14 of the second half. The majority of it came courtesy of Anthony Myers, who stole the first pass of the half and scored six straight points to give Robert Morris its first lead in almost 20 minutes.

"Ant Myers was unbelievable to start the second half. He's a guy that's had enough," Toole said. "He makes about 3-to-4 plays to start the second half and all of a sudden we take the lead and guys started to believe."

Myers' strong play helped spur standout performances from Lucky Jones and Keith Armstrong, as well as crucial plays by Brandon Herman, Lijah Thompson, and David Appolon. And though captain Velton Jones had an off night, Toole said it was evident that Myers' play was a boost to the junior point guard.

"As soon as he started it, it almost seemed like there was a little bit of weight lifted off of Velton's shoulders. Because he's starting to think, 'What's going to happen now?" Toole said. "Ant was with him, and then Lucky said, 'You know what? I'm not putting up with this anymore either' and he made some plays, made some shots. So now you have three guys."

What started out as an individual response turned into a team-wide one. Toole praised Myers' response as proof of how good Robert Morris can be when it plays with a purpose.

"He was so locked in and so focused. His heart is completely in the right place and he's a kid who gets it," Toole said. "When he's playing well, we're such a much better team."

The finish wasn't without some tense moments. Though Robert Morris took command in the early moments of the second half, foul trouble - including a technical foul on Coron Williams and a string of four contact fouls in 14 seconds - hampered RMU the entire half. Mount St. Mary's made just one field goal from 14:54 to 10:36 of the second half, but turned a 41-35 deficit into a 48-45 lead courtesy of ten made free throws.

But Robert Morris held the Mount to 7-of-27 shooting in the second half (25.9 percent) while shooting 54 percent on their end to wrestle the lead back. And with the game tied at 59 with 1:36 to go, Myers made another crucial imprint on the game. Eight seconds were left on the shot clock as Myers inbounded the ball. He zipped a pass to Thompson, who banked it up and in for a 61-59 lead. Robert Morris would never relinquish the lead.

"I think sometimes, Ant is always concerned about the right decision. I told him just throw it," Toole said. "There's eight seconds left on the shot clock, it's a tie game, just throw the thing in there."

Myers made four free throws, Velton Jones made two, and Robert Morris held on the for the win. Myers finished with 15 points, four rebounds, and four assists in 28 minutes. Lucky Jones had a team high 17 points and eight rebounds. He had to play most of his minutes down low because of a short Robert Morris bench.

"Lucky's playing out of position, he's playing against 6-9 guys, but he's battling," Toole said. "That's the attitude our entire team has to take for the next six games and the tournament. You just have to battle."

The ability to battle and focus in on playing to their capabilities has been lacking from Robert Morris of late. Toole seemed hopeful that the team's response Saturday was a sign of good things to come, even though the performance wasn't perfect.

"Yeah, they made some mistakes too, but you know what, you have to continue to fight. You don't stop," Toole said. "It was a great win and we needed it in the worst way."

Robert Morris moved into sole possession of fourth place in the NEC with the win and Central Connecticut State's loss to LIU Brooklyn. The Colonials (17-8, 8-4) are three games behind LIU Brooklyn and two games behind Wagner and St. Francis (N.Y.).

NOTES:

Mike McFadden started but played just four minutes, including none in the second half. Toole said he banged his knee in the opening minute and the pain didn't subside the rest of the game...Williams' technical foul was for slamming the ball down the floor after a whistle on Brandon Herman. It was his second of the season. Williams fouled out after 24 minutes with nine points...Russell Johnson did not play after hurting his ankle against Wagner...Keith Armstrong's 20 minutes were a career high.

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

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