By David Rogers. November 6, 2014. BOONE, NC — Is it spring already in the High Country? Thursday night’s game between Appalachian State and Lees-McRae was just supposed to be an exhibition, but it had all of the energy of an end-of-season “March Madness” affair. The Mountaineers escaped the Holmes Center with a narrow, 71-69 win over an undersized, but scrappy and athletic Bobcats five in front of paid attendance of 1,601.
COVER PHOTO: Tommy Spagnolo (15) goes up and over Lees-McRae defender for two.
Photographic images by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News
Blowing Rock News coverage of App State Sports is made possible by a sponsorship from Appalachian Regional Orthopaedic & Sports Medicine Center
SLIDESHOW AND COMPREHENSIVE STATS BELOW STORY
Nailbiter of a Finish
It was a comeback night for the Mountaineers. Lees-McRae clawed their way to a 9-point lead with 7:23 left in the first half. The Mountaineers fought back to close the gap to just three by intermission, 37-34, then opened the final stanza with the first six points to take the lead, 39-37, just two minutes into the second half. Appalachian extended the lead to 9 points by the 7:26 mark, but the Bobcats just wouldn’t go away. Aided by Mountaineer turnovers and missed free throws, LMC pulled to within 2 points with just under two minutes to play.
App State seemingly had the game in the bag with 1:14 remaining in the second half and taking a 4-point lead after junior point guard Frank Eaves hit nothing but net on two free throws, but a foul put the Bobcats’ senior guard Jacquise Moore at the free throw line for two attempts with the score at 69-65. He made the first one, but missed the second, putting the visitors within a three-pointer of tying the game.
In the tension-filled Holmes Center, LMC’s senior guard Sean Deniton pulled off a steal at the expense of Mountaineer forward Tommy Spagnolo, then passed to junior guard Kendall Isler for a layup that brought the Bobcats to within a point at 69-68. The App State fans didn’t like the call, but Eaves was whistled for a foul as Isler was driving for the basket, and the junior guard from Winder, GA took advantage, tying the game at 69-69, with 38 seconds left to play.
It wasn’t the designed play, but it worked out well.
It was new head coach Jim Fox’s High Country debut at the helm of the App State men’s hoops program and after the inbounds pass he quickly showed some coaching moxie, having Eaves hold the ball just over the midcourt line until only 11.6 seconds remained on the clock before calling timeout. The objective was to set up an offensive scoring play for his side to break the tie, but leave little or no time for Lees-McRae. It worked, kind of.
The play designed, Eaves disclosed afterwards, “…was to have (Jacob) Lawson isolated, but I saw it open up and I just had to attack. I’m glad that my teammates have the confidence in me to make that play and take the shot. It wasn’t the designed play, but it worked out well.”
Indeed it did. Eaves floated to the rim with a fingertip roll off the glass and in, putting the Mountaineers up by two, 71-69.
But the game was hardly over. After a lengthy officials timeout to look at the video replay equipment mandated by the Sun Belt Conference, it was determined that there were four seconds remaining on the clock when Eaves’ shot went in. Another inbounds and another moment later, the officials called another timeout to consult the replay device. Two seconds remained. Coach Fox subbed in tall man Rantavious Gilbert to make things difficult for the LMC player throwing the ball in, and young freshman guard Landon Goesling to pester any Bobcat receiving the ball — and the strategy worked. The Mountaineers declawed the Bobcats on the inbounds pass for the remaining two seconds and left the court with an exhibition win, the first of the 2014 campaign.
Without question, Fox brings a new energy to the Mountaineers and it is seen up and down the roster — and he got to see a lot the roster Thursday night. Twelve Mountaineers played, including 10 who saw at least 10 minutes of court time. Clean up some early season mistakes and this is going to be an entertaining season for the App State basketball faithful. The Mountaineers may not alway win, but it won’t be for lack of effort if Thursday night’s performance is any indication.
In his post-game assessment, Fox quickly zeroed in on two obvious areas of concern regarding Thursday night’s play: Lees-McRae scored 23 points off of App State turnovers and, team-wide, the Mountaineers only shot 53.6% from the charity stripe. To their credit, guards Eaves and freshman Landon Goesling shot 5-of-5 and 6-of-6, respectively, from the free throw line, but as a team Appalachian State left 13 “gimme” points at the line.
“I am disappointed in the free throw shooting,” Fox said. “Among the points of emphasis for us this year has been our free throw shooting — and we’ve charted every single free throw we’ve taken (in practice) since April. We are up around 78% as a team, so when you shoot 53% tonight, that could have cost us the game.
That is something we have to fix.
“I am also disappointed with the turnovers,” Fox acknowledged. “We can’t turn the ball over 20 times (and expect to win).” Chuckling, he quipped, “We were like quarterbacks for the New York Jets. We were throwing interceptions for touchdowns. That is something we have to fix.”
Not surprisingly, the taller Appalachian State team blocked nine Bobcat shots on the night, led by senior forward Spagnolo’s 4 blocks and 3 by redshirt junior transfer from Purdue, Jacob Lawson. Junior forward Rantavious Gilbert accounted for the other two.
“Some of the blocks I thought were some big-time athletic plays,” Fox smiled. “But they were late getting to the help position. They saved themselves there. Obviously, blocking shots is good, but we have to do a better job of being where we should be. Then those blocks will be a lot easier.
While Eaves posted a game-high 22 points in 32 minutes of playing time, Spagnolo had one of the most impressive individual stat lines: 13 rebounds, 9 points, 2 assists and the 4 blocked shots. The only other player in double figures for the Mountaineers was sophomore forward Mike Kobani with 11 points, 7 rebounds and an assist to go along with one steal. All totaled, Appalachian State dominated inside, plucking the boards for 57 total rebounds, 16 offensively.
The Bobcats had three players in double figures, including forward Raul Tutton (14 points), Isler (12 points) and Deniton (16 points). Most remarkable about the LMC five were a total of 10 steals, half of App State’s 20 turnovers.
Rarely did the Mountaineers have the perceived “best five” combination of players on the court at the same time, as it appeared Fox was giving a number of players an opportunity to be seen and blending starters with projected reserves throughout.
“We were just trying to see what worked and what didn’t work,” Fox explained to Blowing Rock News afterwards. “We were trying to find the best combination of guys that would help us win the game. I was mixing and matching.
We’ve got to make free throws
“You know,” the first year head coach added, “(Lees-McRae) presented a lot of problems for us because of their (small) size. They basically have five guards out there. To an extent, that took away from our inside advantage, especially in the first half. We were kind of stagnant. We didn’t attack them inside. Then we went into the paint and got some post touches, and we were able to get a little separation, but then at the end we made some plays that we just can’t make.
“Defensively,” Fox continued, “we held them to 32% shooting, and that’s good. So you wonder, how did they score? Well, they scored because we committed turnovers and we didn’t score at the free throw line. We’ve got to make free throws.”
There were some bright spots for Coach Fox. “Frank (Eaves) did a lot of good things. I thought he ran the show (as point guard) very well. And Tommy (Spagnolo), you know it was tough for him. He was guarding a guard against that zone. I put that on me for not getting him ready. We have nine days before we play again and obviously that is something that we (cover). We will be fine against the zone once we start getting the ball inside and get some movement, getting some cutters. I take responsibility for us not being ready to play against the zone.”
Upping the Tempo
Mountaineer fans have been promised since Fox’s hiring in April a new, up-tempo, fast-paced style of play. Based on Thursday night’s exhibition, they will be getting that and more. While there were some silly mistakes leading to turnovers, there was never a lack of effort from anyone on the court for the Mountaineers. Most impressive was the movement of players away from the ball — that is, players moving when they are not in possession of the ball — working to create space for their teammates to attack.
“Now that we have won it,” said Fox to reporters in his post-game press conference, “it will be something that helps us by having this experience to draw on. We did some good things and a lot of the struggles we had offensively is on me because we just did not prepare a lot (for this game). Their zone (defense), we’re just not there yet. There is so much to do and we haven’t worked a ton on that, perhaps as much as we should have. We got their film last night and all of a sudden we realized they played zone. We have to get better at that.”
I take responsibility.
“It was a good team win,” Eaves told reporters after the game. “I think this benefitted us more than if…it was a real game scenario. Lees-McRae played a great game. You have to give them credit. It was better for us to have this game early. It will benefit us later on in the season.”
“Definitely it was a good learning experience for us,” assessed Spagnolo afterwards. “It was a close game and that is only going to help us down the stretch, to be able to fight through adversity there at the end.”
Eaves noted that “containing the ball” was a problem area for the Mountaineers vs. Lees-McRae. “They ran an attack offense where they just went one-on-one and we guards just had too many breakdowns up top. We allowed them to (penetrate) too deep, and that led to too many offensive rebounds (by LMC) and silly fouls that we didn’t really need. So one of our deficiencies was guarding the ball.”
“The energy in the Holmes Center tonight was terrific,” Eaves added. “It felt like a real game and we prepared for it like a real game. We knew they were going to come out firing on all cylinders and we just tried to prepare ourselves all through the week. But this was great crowd support and I hope it continues to grow through the season. It was a great game, a great atmosphere, and I hope we can continue to build on this.”
The energy in the Holmes Center was terrific.
In a self-assessment, the junior point guard admitted, “There were definitely butterflies before the game. I was just ready to play against somebody else other than our own guys. We’ve had some good scrimmages, but nothing where the crowd could be here…
“We have more movement this year,” Eaves noted to reporters, “instead of a stagnant offense with guys standing around. I felt we got stagnant a lot of times last year…when you get movement, it opens up lanes like it did (tonight).”
“There is a lot more flow to the offense this year,” agreed Spagnolo. “We’re trying to move the ball, work it inside out. We’re coming downcourt and not looking for a specific option, but (reacting to) what the defense gives us.”
As for the movement away from the ball, last year’s MVP of the Mountaineers said, “Coach says all the time, ‘Help someone else to help yourself. You’re screening, you’re moving, you’re finishing your cuts. (Your movement) presents opportunities for other people in the offense.”
I have to finish.
Looking at his own first game of the season, Spagnolo admitted, “I have to finish. I missed a lot of easy baskets. I have to get those easy ones and it will really help us. I have to get used to the system and the flow through the game. It will come with time. We are getting better. We are getting a feel for one another. As the offense comes together those turnovers will decrease and we will become a better basketball team.
Addressing the tempo of the first game, Fox said, “We are getting better. We have to run every play. When we run every play, we will be better. We want to attack people and that will give us easy shots. We have to be smart with the ball, and we all have to run every play. Once we do that, the way we push the ball will help us.”
With little more than a week to prepare for the season opener on November 15th, the Mountaineers have their work cut out for them before embarking on a three-game road trip beginning with an outing against another Bobcats team — the Ohio University Bobcats of the NCAA Division I Mid-American Conference (MAC). It will be a stern test: the Bobcats are picked to place second in the MAC East Division behind Akron. Ohio also has a first year head coach in Saul Phillips, who led North Dakota State to 26 wins and a berth in the NCAA Championships last season.
App State will follow their Ohio trip with a road game at former SoCon rival Furman in Greenville, SC (Nov. 19), then at Virginia Tech on Nov. 22 before returning to the Holmes Center for the first official home game on Nov. 24, vs. Hampton.
SLIDESHOW OF PHOTOGRAPHIC IMAGES