MOON TOWNSHIP, Pa. – For the first time in a long time, Robert Morris will enter the Northeast Conference tournament as the league’s top seed. And for the first time in nine tries, the Colonials finally knocked off their local rivals from Loretto.
Robert Morris emerged victorious over Saint Francis, 78-68, Saturday at the UPMC Events Center in its regular season finale, snapping a nine-game losing skid to the Red Flash that dated back to 2015. With the victory, the Colonials (17-14, 13-5) got back into the win column after four straight losses.
The implications surrounding Saturday’s game were critical. Considering Merrimack is disqualified from NCAA sanctioned postseason play, the winner would earn the No. 1 seed – a la home-court advantage – in the NEC tournament bracket. And Robert Morris played up to the moment. The Colonials pulled ahead early thanks to hot shooting and stingy defense, controlled the tempo in transition, and then held on to win amidst a late Saint Francis run in the second half.
And now, the road to an NEC title (and NCAA tournament berth) runs through Robert Morris for the first time since 2014.
Life is good in Hoop Township.
“All of that makes it that much more fulfilling,” said senior guard Josh Williams. “It’s a rivalry game. Both of us were fighting for home court advantage in the NEC tournament. It was senior night, as well. And on top of that, it was our coach’s birthday today (RMU director of basketball operations Jimmy Langhurst). Just all of that – you want to fight for your family, and we were able to do that.”
Williams led the Colonials with a team-high 23 points points on 7-of-13 shooting, while AJ Bramah, making his first start since Nov. 30, added 12 points and nine rebounds. Jon Williams totaled 10 points, and Sayveon McEwen finished with eight. As a team, the Colonials shot 50 percent for the game (27-53) and 43.5% (10-23) from beyond the arc.
Bramah and McEwen were inserted into the starting lineup in place of Charles Bain and Dante Treacy. While the McEwen move was more related to senior day, Bramah’s start was a calculated move by Andy Toole. All season, Bramah’s energy and emotion off the bench has been a catalyst to the Robert Morris’ success. But with a lot more on the line, the Colonials needed Bramah’s spark from the opening tip.
“I just thought we needed to have all the bullets in the gun,” said Toole. “AJ is obviously a guy who’s had a great year, and he brings that passion to the court. I think it leaks off to his teammates. I thought Sayveon did a good job with his energy early on as he started for senior night, and gave us a huge lift. So, I thought everybody did the things that they needed to do for us to win the game.”
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the win was that Robert Morris held Saint Francis’ league-leading scoring offense 10 points below its season average with 38.6% rate from the field. Keith Braxton finished with a game-high 24 points and Isaiah Blackmon scored 21 points, but outside of them, the rest of the Red Flash lineup failed to stand out.
“I just think we really tried to guard harder. The game up there, from the tip, we were behind at all times,” said Toole. “On Tuesday, we watched the first half of that game and just tried to show our guys the lack of urgency we had. Any time Robert Morris and Saint Francis get together, it’s going to be a hard-fought game. Today was no different. Last time, we didn’t bring anything to that. So I thought we needed to respond a lot better. I thought our urgency, and our ability to do some of the little detailed stuff was much cleaner.”
Much to the opposite of the previous RMU/Saint Francis meeting, the Colonials played with a lead for 39 of a possible 40 minutes, which allowed them to operate freely on offense against the Red Flash zone. They began the game hot, connecting on six of their first eight 3-point attempts en route to a 24-16 advantage within the first 10 minutes of play. That efficiency forced Saint Francis to extend its zone farther out on the perimeter, which opened up space for the pick & roll game – something Bramah and Yannis Mendy took full advantage of. On the defensive end, the Colonials stymied the Red Flash into a 12-for-33 shooting mark in the first half (36.4%) with 3-of-10 rate from 3 – largely due to getting back in transition.
“I think our biggest key was to focus on not giving up transition points,” Williams said. “That’s how they create their runs. We were able to slow them down in a way. Especially because making shots slows people down, too. …Just the defensive stand, whether it was in transition or in the half court, it was really big.”
The Colonials began the second half on an 11-4 run and extended their lead to as much as 17 points midway through the period, but Saint Francis refused to go away. Led by a heavy dose of Braxton and Blackmon, the Red Flash managed to cut the deficit to four with just over four minutes to go. Each side traded blows in the game’s final stretches, seemingly aware that the ensuing outcome would dictate the difficulty of their postseason path. But with 3:30 left, sophomore guard Jalen Hawkins hit an important 3 to build the lead back to seven, and from there, the Colonials never looked back.
“I was talking to (Hawkins) throughout the game,” said Williams. “Every time I’d come in or every time we’d be in at the same time, I’d just tell him stay aggressive, stay locked in. And sure enough, when he got his opportunity he knocked it down. When everybody’s moment came, they stepped up and did what they had to do.”
So, now comes the NEC tournament.
Back in the summer, Toole gathered his team for a conversation that began with two simple questions.
- Who wants to win an NEC championship?
- Who wants to make the NCAA tournament?
Everyone raised their hands.
“If your hand doesn’t go up, I don’t understand why you would even be in the room,” recalled Williams.
But then Toole told the team to stretch their arms as high up as they could possibly reach. Those few inches, he told them, are what greatness requires.
“I stole that from (former Carolina Panthers coach) Ron Rivera,” Toole said. “He asked the Panthers about going to the Super Bowl, and everyone put their hands up. But the difference between this (a raised hand) and that (an outstretched arm) is what it takes. Guys have to understand that. You work so hard to get the opportunity that we have, to be the No. 1 seed. But that’s just the start of it. This isn’t the destination. This is just the start of the journey.
“What I talked to the team about at the end of the game was that not everyone gets to put their jersey on anymore. And so, the more days you get to put your jersey on is a gift. You’ve got to treat it like that, and that’s the mentality we need to have heading into Wednesday.”
Robert Morris will face No. 8 St. Francis Brooklyn Wednesday at the UPMC Events Center.