CHARLESTON, S.C. — Last year at this time, the men’s basketball team barely made it out of Puerto Rico alive.
They blew leads to Providence and the College of Charleston and just made it past Marist in overtime.
But this year at the Charleston Classic, things went differently.
Friday, the Owls had no problems with East Tennessee State, winning 79-65 behind 26 points from senior guard Dionte Christmas.
On Saturday, the Owls once again faced Charleston. And while flirting with a repeat of last year’s collapse, they hit all 10 of their free throws down the stretch and beat the Cougars, 70-65.
Finally, in the Championship game last Sunday, the Owls battled Clemson, a NCAA Tournament team last year. While down by as many as 14 points in the second half, the Cherry and White fought back but let two late fast break chances go to waste and fell, 76-72.
After a weekend of basketball and three games of action, coach Fran Dunphy’s squad stands at 2-1 overall, and despite the loss to Clemson, is fairly pleased with how it played in Charleston.
“I think one of the good things for us is we learned some more about our team,” Dunphy said. “How good we can be, how poised we need to be when that pressure turns up a little bit. But overall, I was pleased with playing in the Championship game, which is important to us.”
Junior guard Ryan Brooks, who’s become a starter this year after two seasons of coming off the bench, was also encouraged by how his team played so far.
“I thought we played very well for our first three games of the season, comparing to how we’ve done in the past,” he said. “We know that if we play at this level against any other team, we’re going to be very tough. And we’re definitely looking forward to it.”
The Owls were led in the Classic by Christmas, who averaged 22 points per game, leading all other players.
Still, Christmas preaches team and getting everyone else involved on offense.
That came to fruition as Brooks, sophomore forward Lavoy Allen and freshman guard Ramone Moore all averaged in double figures last weekend.
“I don’t think I have to average 25 and 27 points for us to be successful,” Christmas said after last Saturday’s game. “We got guys like Ramone Moore coming off the bench giving you a double-double, Lavoy Allen playing as good as he is, and Semaj and [Luis Guzman] and Ryan. Everybody is giving their all every night. I don’t have to do [everything].”
While Allen’s strong play wasn’t much of a surprise considering what he did last season, the play of Moore was.
The local product and Southern High School graduate sat out most of last season to focus on academics, and it apparently paid off, as the 6-foot-4 guard came out of nowhere to contribute off the bench.
“I’m really appreciating the fact that my coaches trust me and [are] putting me in there for 20 minutes,” Moore said. “[They’re] allowing me to go out there and play, creating and doing things for teammates.”
Moore’s standout play also caught the eye of Dunphy.
“He’s really playing very well,” he said. “Once he really gets his feet set defensively and understands he’s got to keep people in front of him a little bit more, he’s going to be someone we can go to all the time.”
That should help the Owls, as the team looks to have more depth this year than it had last year.
In addition to Moore, freshman forward Micheal Eric saw time in each game, and freshman guards T.J. DiLeo and Scootie Randall and sophomore forward Craig Williams all saw some first half playing time in either one or two games last weekend.
This all came with senior center Sergio Olmos nursing a right ankle injury, as he didn’t play at all in Charleston but was out of a cast and off crutches by last Sunday.
“We’re just kind of picking and choosing right now,” Dunphy said of his lineup after last Friday’s game. “We have to find a way to get ourselves into a rotation. I think every coach is trying to find that right combination.”
While that rotation will still take some more games to find, the Owls can still count on one sure thing:
And the co-captain’s confidence, intensity and personality are surely never lost on the viewing public.
“I think if we continue to play like this, we’re definitely going to end up where we want to be,” he said after last Saturday’s contest. “And that’s the Tournament in March.”
The Owls return to action Friday against Lafayette in Easton, Pa., at 8:30 p.m. They don’t play at home until Dec. 3 against Miami (Ohio).
Todd Orodenker can be reached at email@example.com.