A 14-point Army second half had evaporated, not in a barrage of VMI three-pointers as you might expect, but just some really shaky offensive execution that allowed the Keydets to go on an extended 26-6 run and take a 83-77 lead with 4:16 left in the All-Military Classic final.
No matter, it was a good lesson for a young Army team that still has to learn how to win. You know, the one winning season since 1984-85 and all that.
But wait a minute? This is not a young Army team anymore. It has the preseason Patriot League player of the year Kyle Wilson and a host of juniors that got plenty of experience under Zach Spiker the last two, fairly successful, campaigns.
And lo and behold, down the stretch the Black Knights acted like it. Again, not in the way you might expect, as two of the fastest tempo teams in the country who combined for 105 points in the first half turned the final minutes into a half-court struggle. But it was Army who made all the big plays, especially on the defensive end, as they held VMI to just one field goal in that final 4:16 to take the All-Military Classic on its home floor, 93-87.
“I think we were pretty fortunate to get the win tonight,” Spiker said. “I don’t know that this will go down in history as one of the best defensive performances we’ve ever had, but this group showed veteran leadership when a couple of easy layups didn’t go our way, we didn’t put our heads down like we had in the past. We kept fighting and kept playing and kept concentrating on the next play and we made some huge individual plays at the end there.”
The Black Knights also had a couple other factors that usually spell doom for them, shooting just 5-of-19 from three-point range and going a woeful 15-of-29 at the free throw line. Wilson, especially, was off by his high standard, shooting just 6-of-19 from the floor and 2-of-8 from beyond the arc. But what might have been most encouraging to Spiker and Army fans was the different players to step up in the closing minutes.
Tanner Plomb had a driving three-point play to give Army the lead and after VMI had tied it, put the Black Knights up for good on a short jumper with 1:05 to go. Dylan Cox’s drive and finish with 35 seconds left sealed the game, and the defense of Cox, point guard Mo Williams, and center Kevin Ferguson (two blocks) in the final minutes of a tight game are very encouraging signs going forward for the Black Knights, and probably not coincidental that everyone named so far is an upperclassman.
“We had to get back to what we were doing, which is frazzle the other team,” Plomb – who was named to the All-Tournament team – said. “They had us frazzled for a lot of the game. We had to take the game back.”
After VMI had just 60 possessions in its semifinal win over The Citadel Friday night, the lowest in the 10-year coaching career of Duggar Baucom (VMI has ranked in the top 10 in the nation in adjusted offensive tempo in each of Baucom’s first nine seasons, first or second in seven of them), the Keydets had 45 possessions in a breakneck first half that saw them lead 53-52. Army didn’t mind the tempo per se, but would have liked to play a little better defense.
“It’s a lot more fun to play that way when there’s shots going up every few seconds and you’re just going up and down, but we didn’t stop them too much,” Wilson – who was named the tournament MVP – said.
Said Spiker: “I didn’t mind running, but we needed to guard them. We’ve done it before and if we’re going to be really good, we need to do it. We didn’t defend like we’re capable of defending.”
The Black Knights are 2-0 for the first time since 2003-04, and rudimentary research shows the last time Army started its season by defeating two Division I teams was 1970-71, more than five years before Spiker (who is in his sixth season now) was born and under a little-known head coach named Robert Knight.
While non-conference games like St. Francis Brooklyn (Wednesday), Marist, Binghamton, Delaware, and Maine ahead, Army could put up a nice record before heading into Patriot League play. And then there’s the dream of removing themselves from the tiny (five) list of teams that have been with Division I from the start and never appeared in the NCAA tournament.
But Spiker knows that is way down the road, and that wins over a team picked near the bottom of the Mountain West (Air Force) and a rebuilding VMI won’t mean much Wednesday in Brooklyn, let alone when Patriot play begins in six weeks.
“Our goal is to be playing our best basketball at the end of the season,” Wilson said. “This is great, but we have to keep getting better as a team.”
It’s a good start, though.