Most fans would admit that when a Bryant/Navy non-conference battle in Annapolis was set this past offseason, it likely wasn’t a game at the top of anybody’s lists. After all, these were two basketball programs that struggled to merely stay competitive last season.
The teams had five combined victories for the 2011-12 season. They were chosen to finish last and third to last in their respective preseason conference polls. There was one program finally ending their arduous D-I transition period in Bryant, while the Navy Midshipmen would probably struggle again after losing their two leading scorers from last year’s team, Jordan Sugars and J.J. Avila.
How exciting could this game possibly be?
Fast forward to Monday evening before tip-off, and that first paragraph couldn’t have been further from the truth.
In a back-and-forth affair that saw six ties and 12 lead changes, Navy used efficient shooting and solid defense to pull away late for the victory, 69-59. It was Navy’s sixth win of the season, which already doubles their win total from last season. What a difference a year can make for Navy head coach Ed DeChellis.
“It’s a different fiber of the team, they just believe they can win,” said DeChellis when asked about Navy’s substantial improvement. “Last year is last season. This year we have a different team, different fiber, we got some guys – like Kendall Knorr – he wants the ball late in the game. He’ll go to the free throw line and make free throws and that’s huge.”
Point guard Tilman Dunbar led the Midshipmen with 13 points and 10 assists. The talented freshman, despite having seven turnovers, was able to make plays with the ball, both in transition and in the half-court with dribble penetration. The penetration led to open looks for Navy, which they certainly took advantage of. They hit six of their 11 three-pointers for the game. Knorr, in particular, capitalized with 15 points on only five shots. Junior James Loupos had 11 points and four rebounds.
On the defensive end, Navy did an excellent job making life difficult for Bryant on the perimeter, with the game plan clearly focused on containing sophomore Dyami Starks. The Columbia transfer came into the game averaging more than 18 points per game, but he never got comfortable against Navy, and that was certainly by design.
“I watched that tape the other day when (Starks) came in and had like (25 points) against Binghamton,” said DeChellis. “He got our attention pretty quickly. I think he’s a really good player. We just tried to make him work for every shot. He’s a very good player and he’s going to make shots … but we ran different guys at him, different players at him to try to keep him moving without the ball.”
Overall, it was a frustrating effort for a much improved Bryant club. The Bulldogs were missing their starting point guard and fifth year senior Frankie Dobbs for the game. Dobbs had turned his ankle two nights prior versus Binghamton and with the quick two-day turnaround between games, head coach Tim O’Shea simply didn’t want to risk worsening the injury.
Dobbs is among the NEC league leaders in assist to turnover ratio (2.5 A/TO) for the young season. But without Dobbs last night, Bryant struggled to create easy looks at the basket. The Bulldogs had 11 assists for the game, against 15 turnovers. It led to a final shooting percentage of 38.9%.
Joe O’Shea, the coach’s nephew, provided a much-needed spark off the bench in the first half, setting career highs in points (15) and rebounds (seven). But none of the other key players were able to develop any kind of consistency throughout the night. Alex Francis (4 of 13 shooting), Cory Maynard (4 of 13), and Starks (3 of 15) all struggled mightily to make shots, especially in the final portion of the second half. The Bulldogs drained only one field goal in the last six and a half minutes of the game, which led to a Navy 16-6 run to conclude the game.
Said O’Shea, “It’s tough to win a road game, when you don’t put the ball in the basket.” Simply put, coach.
Navy, however, did make shots in the second half, connecting on 68.4% of their baskets. Dunbar paced the Midshipment and has shown why he’s the early favorite for Patriot League Rookie of the Year. His poise and composure as a floor general has been a huge key for Navy’s early success.
DeChellis agrees. “You have a quarterback who can put pressure on the defense and who can make other guys better. We had (a lot of) broken plays last year, now if we get a transition play, we can make it. We can get (Dunbar) a ball screen and he can score or he can get somebody else a shot. That’s huge. We have a different level of confidence.”
For a team that was selected last in the Patriot League Preseason Coach’s Poll, the second year head coach truly believes his young team can take a big step in the right direction. After mid-major powers Lehigh and Bucknell, there’s plenty of opportunity for someone to advance into the upper half of the conference. Does DeChellis feel like his young team has the ability to accomplish such a feat?
“I think so,” answered DeChellis. “We’re going to push them toward (finishing in the upper half of the Patriot League). And these kids are competitive enough that they will respond to the challenge.”