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February 11, 2012

Johnson, Jones spark RMU's third straight win

It almost became a lost season for Russell Johnson.

From a broken nose to a broken thumb to a sprained ankle, Johnson had been beaten and battered throughout his junior season. When he played, he was effective. But the problem had become keeping Johnson on the court.

With four games left to go in the regular season, Johnson finally appears healthy and locked in. He had ten points, eight rebounds, three steals, three assists, and an overall solid 27 minutes as Robert Morris won its third straight with a 70-56 victory over St. Francis (Pa.) at the Sewall Center.

"I'm about 99%. I feel great," Johnson said. "It feels good to be on the court."

It has to feel good for Robert Morris to have him completely back, as well.

"It feels good to have the normal Russell back. It's about time," Velton Jones said. "We've been needing him."

Johnson was active defensively and, at times, the game seemed like a personal highlight reel. There was Johnson racing back to block an Anthony Ervin lay-up on a fastbreak. There was Johnson picking up a ball stolen by Lucky Jones, dishing to Anthony Myers, and clapping his hands with a wide smile on his face as Myers scored. And there was Johnson going an efficient 4-for-5 from the field, including 2-of-3 from beyond the arc.

"The last few games, he's been terrific. When he focuses on doing what he's capable of, he's really good," Andy Toole said. "His defensive energy the last few games is as good as it's been since maybe December. It's just his activity."

Johnson helped spark the Colonials, but they also took the cue from their captain. Point guard Velton Jones hustled back to stymie a second half fastbreak for St. Francis, poking the ball loose before sliding nearly ten feet past the base line on his stomach.

"That's Velton for you," Coron Williams said. "I saw that before at Monmouth last year when he did it, so when I saw it tonight I wasn't surprised. It's a hustle play. That's what we're supposed to do."

Though it's become a familiar scene for Toole and the Colonials, the message still resonated. The play happened with just under ten minutes left in the second half and Robert Morris was up 50-41. The game was far from being decided.

"He's willing to do whatever it takes to win. He's pretty banged up. He hits the floor a lot," Toole said. "He's pretty bumped and bruised, and when he comes to practice Monday, he's pretty sore."

Though St. Francis still shot just under 49 percent from the floor as Robert Morris missed out on closing down on the perimeter, RMU frustrated St. Francis with an intense pressure defense. The Colonials forced 24 turnovers, which led to 33 points and had the Colonials pleased.

"That's pretty good. We wanted to get our pressure up and play harder, and for us to be able to convert," Velton Jones said. "We knew if we pressured them, we could force some turnovers. We knew if we could do that, we could get out and run on them."

Though the Colonials had just 14 fast-break points, the penchant for quick turnovers helped them establish several key runs that took what was a close game into one Robert Morris regularly led by 10-plus points. And with more offensive looks, Robert Morris continued its efficient scoring stretch.

"I like my team when we take good shots," Toole said. "I don't care who makes them."

And once again, it wasn't Velton Jones making 15 shots for the Colonials. Jones was just 2-of-8, though he went 9-of-12 from the line for 13 points. But he had seven assists, five steals, and just two turnovers in 32 minutes.

"When he makes really good decisions, we're a really good team," Toole said. "I thought we did a lot of good things tonight, and I thought for the third game in a row we shared the ball."

Eight Robert Morris players scored, five had eight more points, and Jones said if it means far more wins than losses, he'll play the role of facilitator every time.

"It gets everybody involved and makes everyone feel like they're involved in the game," he said.

The win pushed Robert Morris' record to 19-8 overall, 10-4 in the Northeast Conference, and clinched their ninth straight appearance in the NEC Tournament. They'll need to win at least two more NEC games to clinch a home game in the first round.

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

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