As the 2012-2013 basketball season winds into mid-January, Andrew Toole has reflected occasionally on how his Robert Morris Colonials have handled the concept of still working hard despite having success in the past.
Those results have been mixed. But Toole has to be pleased with the way Robert Morris has responded to adversity in the Northeast Conference schedule. Robert Morris topped Sacred Heart 66-62 Thursday night to stretch its league win streak to three games, and the Colonials did it with their shortest bench since Toole's first year as head coach.
"When you talk about teams that are successful, whenever they're hit with some type of adversity or difficulty, they just find a way to persevere and get through the game," Toole said. "Guys played out of position, guys played extended minutes, guys played extended rotations, some guys played more minutes than they're used to, but a lot of guys stepped up and contributed in important ways for us to grind that one out."
Robert Morris was without senior point guard Velton Jones (head) and sharpshooter Karvel Anderson (foot). With Vaughn Morgan no longer on the team and Keith Armstrong available in the case of injury or severe foul trouble, Toole went with a 7-man rotation. The last time Robert Morris did that was December 4, 2010 against St. Francis (N.Y.) when Gary Wallace and Lawrence Bridges were out with injuries and Karon Abraham served a team suspension.
Robert Morris lost that game 65-63 in the final minutes. The Colonials made sure that didn't happen this time around.
"No matter how players we've got, how many players are down, the plan never changes," Russell Johnson said. "We still have to do what we've got to do."
Johnson was one of four players in double figures as Robert Morris doused a fairly hot Sacred Heart start in the first half and stretched a slim halftime lead to a 12-point margin midway through the second half. With Jones out, Johnson was the only senior on the floor and stepped into the vocal leadership role.
"Russ has done a great job - the Monmouth game and tonight, especially - making sure guys know their match-up, making sure we're in the huddle and know what we need to work on," Coron Williams said.
Johnson's role included handling the ball more on the perimeter, something he and Lucky Jones haven't had to do as much since necessity has put them in the paint more often this year. And it meant Williams became more of a point guard at times, helping spell Anthony Myers-Pate.
"As we prepared for this and started to talk about it, we didn't even talk about the offensive side. We just talked about doing your job defensively and let the offense take care of itself," Toole said. "You don't have your two leading scorers. To get four other guys in double figures, that's an impressive thing, I think."
Williams and Johnson each had 10 points, while Lucky Jones and Mike McFadden led the way with 15 each.
Sacred Heart wouldn't go away quietly. In the midst of a quiet 27-point night, Sacred Heart star guard Shane Gibson tried to take the game over. He and Steve Glowiak hit back-to-back 3-pointers midway through the second half to cut Robert Morris' lead to 49-43. RMU stretched the lead to 10 again, but after a 5-0 run trimmed the advantage to 58-53, Gibson took off after a Pioneers rebound. The senior guard tried to drive to the basket and make it a one possession game, only to plow into David Appolon and be called for charging with 2:41 left. Appolon took the charges despite having four fouls.
"I read him going right, straight to the baseline because he was trying to get a layup," Appolon said. "I knew I had four fouls but I was going to stay there and take a charge. It was either going to be a foul on me or a foul on him. I just tried to make that winning play."
The play was enough to slow Sacred Heart's rush. Gibson scored nine more points in the final 2:30, but each time, Robert Morris had a response. It was Lucky Jones sinking his own pair of free throws, or it was McFadden getting an offensive rebound and tip-in. And it was a little luck.
With Gibson covered and just 25 seconds left, the ball found its way to Louis Montes. Jones and Myers-Pate were supposed to switch and keep him covered, but miscommunication left Montes wide open for a three. He couldn't convert, and though Gibson would hit a 3-pointer later, Sacred Heart couldn't tie the game.
"It was just to make sure that Gibson didn't beat us," Jones said. "But it was just miscommunication and luckily he missed the shot."
RMU wanted to lock Sacred Heart down on the 3-point line, and though the Pioneers shot 47 percent from the floor, they were just at 33 percent from beyond the arc.
"I thought the overall effort defensively was definitely where it needed to be in a game like this," Toole said.
Robert Morris takes on Quinnipiac on Saturday.
- There is no timetable for Velton Jones or Karvel Anderson to return to the lineup. Toole was noncommittal, but it doesn't sound like either will be out for long. "I don't know. Hopefully ASAP," Toole said. "I think both of those guys, if there's any chance they can get out there, they'll get out there." Jones hurt his head when he was elbowed in the face three minutes into the Monmouth game. It's unclear how Anderson injured his foot, though he wore an open-toed boot to Saturday's game.
- Coron Williams, on the team forcing 13 steals among the Pioneers' 21 turnovers: "When guys had opportunity to attack and get a cheap steal, I think guys took that chance. But I think with our ball pressure, that's the way we play. That's what we're supposed to do."
- Three games went into overtime in NEC play on Thursday, and the wild night continued a wild season. Bryant is the only team 5-0, though they needed OT to shake Mount St. Mary's, and the rest of the league is in a logjam. Five teams, including RMU, are 3-2. Another four are 2-3. Only the Mount and St. Francis (Pa.) are alone at the bottom at 1-4.
ColonialsCorner publisher Andrew Chiappazzi can be reached at email@example.com.