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February 16, 2012

Colonials inch closer to home playoff game with win

MOON TWP. - Robert Morris hasn't been having a lot of fun lately. Andy Toole knows it's partly his fault, demanding his young team to be better, to be more focused. As Velton Jones explained it, the Colonials have been too uptight, too worried about making a mistake, then dwelling on the fact that they made one.

Thursday night, Jones and the Colonials found themselves having fun again. Jones had 19 points, Lijah Thompson had 13, and Robert Morris forced 25 turnovers en route to a 69-40 win over Bryant at the Sewall Center.

Noticeably relaxed, Robert Morris shook off a shaky offensive start to manhandle 2-25 Bryant. The Colonials forced 19 steals, including eight from big men Mike McFadden, Lijah Thompson, and Keith Armstrong

"We've actually been trying to have more fun playing games," Jones said. "Earlier in the year, we were too uptight. We just wanted to come out and have fun."

Robert Morris has found their defensive formula the past few games, and they held Bryant to just 31.6 percent shooting, including 25 percent in the second half. But most important for Toole, the intensity, effort, and pace were all there again on defense.

"I thought it was a very good defensive effort from us tonight, more of what we're looking for from a defensive standpoint in terms of energy, in terms of activity," Toole said. "Obviously the turnovers are a byproduct of that effort and energy, speeding people up to make them uncomfortable."

The turnovers also allowed Robert Morris to have a little fun toward the end of the game. Armstrong forced a steal, fed a pass to Jones, who whipped a bounce pass to Lawrence Bridges. The 6-foot-5 senior finished with a tomahawk jam over 6-foot-8 Bryant forward Vlad Kondratyev.

"About time. He can jump so high, but he just never tries to dunk on anyone. I didn't expect it," Jones cracked. "I think it's (SportsCenter) Top 10 worthy. Gotta put the pass in there, too. That was a great pass."

Robert Morris started sloppy on offense, but their defensive intensity helped keep the game in check. Up 14-12 with 7:28 to go in the first half, Robert Morris finished the half on a 17-7 run and opened up the second half with nine straight points.

"We're going back to old Robert Morris basketball. Old Robert Morris basketball used to get up and pressure people, " Jones said. "In the middle of the year, we got away from that. So towards the end we're trying to emphasize pressuring the ball, getting into people, and just playing hard."

It was the second straight game Robert Morris forced 20 or more turnovers, and even though the Colonials led by as much as 34, they rarely let off the gas. Jones said that's also been a point of emphasis in the past week.

"Staying locked in, even though we were up a certain amount of points, still playing defense and still playing hard," Jones said. "Earlier in the year, we'd let a team get back in the game or stop playing."

Jones was efficient, going 4-of-9 from the floor and 9-of-11 from the free throw line en route to his 19 points. He also had four assists to just one turnover in 26 minutes, and Robert Morris had just nine turnovers as a team. Thompson, meanwhile, put in his 13 points and seven rebounds in just 14 minutes as he continues to nurse his sore back. But that efficiency and quality of play is exactly what Toole and the Colonials are looking for from the junior forward.

"I can't explain how important it is. When we kind of hit our stride last year, a lot of it was because of his consistent effort and consistent play," Toole said. "It might not always be 13 points and 7 rebounds in 14 minutes, but that's what he's capable of."

Thompson's play was especially valuable because Lucky Jones joined Robert Morris' length injury list. The freshman forward injured his knee during practice on Tuesday and sat out Thursday's game. Toole said the prognosis is optimistic, and that Jones very well could return to the lineup as soon as Saturday.

The win improved Robert Morris to 20-8, 11-4 in conference play. It's the fourth time in five seasons that Robert Morris reached 20 wins, and the seventh time overall. Robert Morris hosts Central Connecticut State on Saturday and must win to clinch a home game in the NEC Tournament. If Robert Morris falls, CCSU would stay alive for the fourth spot. It could also keep the door open for Quinnipiac should the Bobcats win at LIU Brooklyn.

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

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