By: Joshua Gerard Gargiulo
PHOENIX – High pressure situations lead to costly mistakes, in key moments, for the Bears’ Men’s Basketball team. Citing a lack of communication, the problems lie in the fundamentals.
Coming off a 1-1 finish at the Chaparral Classic, in Midland, TX; and a recent defeat to Ranger College 103-81.The Bears’ saw themselves matched-up against New Mexico Junior College, in the Native American Classic, hosted by Tohono O’odham Community College.
From the tip, the tempo was set; but not in the Bears’ favor. A sluggish start, and up-tempo offense from New Mexico Junior College quickly saw the Bears’ trailing 17-8 with 14:39 in the 1st half.
With both Nathan Fromm and Deion Rhea grabbing three rebounds, and a steady drive-and-dish from guards Darnell Rodger and Rakym Felder. Head Coach, Duane Eason was forced to quickly adjust his scheme with the subbing in of Ahmed Levon.
Levon quickly found his groove with a three-pointer, rebound and steal; but it was short lived, being replaced by Darius Goudeau. Teammate, Trey Mitchell aided with three points, three assists and two steals in the first 10 minutes. Alongside Goudeau, who found his shot late in the 1st half; which included a buzzer-beating three, to close the half ahead 48-45.
Regardless, the NMJC duo of Fromm and Rhea combined for 20 points and 15 rebounds by half. The three Phoenix College “Big Men”: Fuentes, Gomes and Levon combined for a mere, seven points and six rebounds. Furthermore, New Mexico guards Rodger (8 points) and Felder (11 points), also assisted in the Thunderbirds efforts.
Phoenix College’s, Deron Kyle was quite possibly the “Star of the First Half.” Not only keeping the Bears’ alive; but backing up a whopping, 16 points and 3 rebounds with hard work on the defensive end.
Going into the Second Half, Deron Kyle and Darius Goudeau picked up where they left off by facilitating to teammate Trey Mitchell and taking buckets, as they came.
As the game drew closer to crunch-time, play began to pick up intensity; but something still seemed off to the first-year coach: Young players looking at the game “in sections.” An onslaught of points by Deion Rhea and Ryan Murphy; and swift moves from Darnell Roger gave the Thunderbirds breathing room, in the most-needed moments.
“I wrote the quote, on the board, “’Crunch-Time’” is made in the first 39 minutes.” People think, “Oh, there’s a minute left! It’s ‘Crunch-Time.’” And it’s like, no. Really, there would be no crunch-time, if you took care of business in the previous 39 minutes,” Eason said.
The story of the season, so far, has been a “story of mishaps.” The Bears’ opportunities have come at a steady-rate, including tonight’s near-win; but closing out is where they seem to falter. Taking full responsibility, coach Eason feels it’s his job to better understand where his players lack.
“We gotta do better, we gotta teach better... Right now, we got bad habits; and that means we probably gotta spend more time on fundamentals,” Eason said. “If the mental approach is not right, then communication easily breaks down. For instance, players catching the ball and facing the basket. Players think, their role is, ‘all I have to do is pass it. So, how important is it to face the basket?’ Then you are then placed into a pass-only situation- every time. Rather than having the ability to fool that guy, when you need too.
Two key plays, late in the 2nd half, included a missed read by guard, Habib Arogundade; and a turnover, on a bad pass from Darius Goudeau, that led to a crucial 2 points- late. Despite mistakes by the T-birds throughout the game. PC could not find their footing, on defense; and on-the-boards.
Boxing-out was another emphasis, post-game. Out-rebounded by ten at game’s end, the Bears’ had trouble securing the ball on Offense especially, being out-rebounded 12 to 19.
Fouls from big men Alfredo Fuentes and Christiano Gomes quickly turned the game into a free-throw match. Deion Rhea taking 5 free-throws in the final two minutes, stretched the game to 87-84 with :35 seconds left.
With just under :24 seconds, Darius Goudeau dialed long-distance, for the 87-all, tie. But just as the crowd was erupting in excitement, Darnell Roger was erupting to the hoop, scoring the go-ahead basketball with 2.4 seconds left.
A fumbled hand-off from Ahmed Levon to Habib Arogundade sealed the Bears’ fate, succumbing to the Thunderbirds, 89-87.
Eason exclaims that their approach is what makes this team: not “great,” not “good,” but “talented.” They are, physically, a talented group of guys who can win a National title; however, during the starts of practices, the starts of games and in-game, it just isn’t there mentally.
The attribution to this lack of mental preparation could be a handful of players he calls “skimmers.” Like having to read a chapter for a test, you skim the material to grasp it. Unfortunately, when the tough questions come, the answers are often few-and-far-between.
“It’s just a matter of mentally preparing yourself… If you can’t visually see yourself in a one-or-two possession game, with a one-minute left. If you can’t visualize that, it’s hard for you to understand the coaching for it- in practice… You can say, ‘I get the main idea.’ But how much do you really get it?”
Rebounding and defense are the heart of Eason’s style. The instinct to dominate the glass is a “Must!” for the former big man. The rebounding was neck-and-neck in the last 25 minutes; but those first 15 minutes are what established the discrepancy.
The passion of players, is still a major question for head coach, Duane Eason. Could the talent pool in Arizona not be on the same level?
“I think our guys are tough… for here… There are just some things we struggle with against D-I talent. I mean, tonight, they had seven, Division I transfers… If you got seven D-I transfers, you shouldn’t be beating a D-II, Junior College by two.”
He views a 2-point loss as a personal victory, against a team who forced 19 turnovers, with 19 offensive rebounds against them. It’s a test of where they lie, going into a division they expect to seed highly in. Emphasizing that this team “has what it takes to win.” It is a matter of grittiness and communication, against high-level talent, that will distinguish them with the best in the NJCAA.
The Men’s basketball team plays the New Mexico Military Institute, in the second day of the Native American Classic, at the “Bears’ Den.” Tonight at 7:30pm.