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Three Tests, Two Passed for Aces

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After Evansville’s loss to Notre Dame the Aces returned to the Ford Center to begin the next portion of the schedule with three home games. The games were a part of the sub regional Evansville was playing host to as part of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic. On Thursday evening Evansville faced the Buffalo Bulls. Evansville started out the game shooting the ball well, but as the half progressed Evansville started to let the lead slip away from them. The Aces gave Buffalo to many shots close around the basket which the Bulls were glad to put in for points throughout the game. Also, Colt Ryan was injured during the first half of the game and had to leave the contest. He did not return throughout the rest of the game. Without Ryan, Evansville’s offense struggled. This would have been a perfect time for any of the other Evansville players on the roster to step up and show that Evansville has another star player other than Ryan. The players did not, and without Ryan the offense was not ran very well. After losing Ryan, Evansville played well for a while until the second half. With 15:38 left in the game, the Aces had extended their halftime lead to 36-31. Then Buffalo held Evansville scoreless for the next six minutes and rattled off 12 straight points. A key contributor for the Bulls was junior Javon McCrea who had 14 points and 8 rebounds. This was not a game Evansville could afford to lose when it comes time for NCAA tournament selection in March because Buffalo has not had a lot of success in the past. Evansville will need to bounce back and maybe pick up a victory against either Colorado State, Murray State, or Butler to compensate for this loss. In the past two seasons Evansville has lost a home game which the Aces should win. Last season the team lost to Tennessee Tech and this season the team lost to Buffalo which were two games the team should have won. A sign of a good team is when you can win all of your home games and Evansville has let some winnable games slip away in recent memory.

Buffalo capitalized on all of these Evansville errors in play and judgment to capture the Bulls’ first win on the season. This was Buffalo head coach Reggie Witherspoons second win over Evansville. His first win over the Purple Aces came in 2007 and was the 100th win of his coaching career at Buffalo. Simmons said Buffalo played harder than the Aces. “Give Buffalo credit. They out-competed us. They out-executed us. We had times where we executed, but not near enough. We don’t deliver the ball when guys are open. You’ve got to make open shots. You’ve just got to execute, and that’s at both ends of the floor.” With Evansville’s experience Simmons believed the team should not have made as many mistakes throughout the game. “For as an experienced team as we’ve got, we made way too many mistakes, and that’s not one or two guys. That’s our team, and that’s a reflection of me. We’re not getting these guys committed to how they have to play to be successful. We’ve got to get it changed, because it doesn’t get any easier.”Simmons said it was tough to see how the team reacted after Colt Ryan went down with a hip pointer. “It’s hard to say. You’re just into the game and you understand you’re not going to have him. I think our guys tried. They gave effort. It’s just our ability to execute. At times we had some unforced turnovers. We took some ill-advised shots. Those things offensively – if you’ve got good looks early in the clock, then you want to take them. If not, there’s got to be more patient. There’s got to be more poise. We’ve got to have more leadership. And then really on the defensive end as well. We gave up too many easy baskets – to many layups. That’s what our whole defense is predicated on. You’ve got to play hard, but you’ve got to play smart and think in the heat of battle. Right now, our execution on both ends of the floor is not what it needs to be to be successful.” Simmons says it will take some work to fix the offensive struggles Evansville had in the game. “All I know is, you’ve got to work your way through it. You’ve got to cut harder. You’ve got to screen harder. There’s got to be more of an emphasis on delivering the basketball when guys are open.”

With this loss all future opponents of Evansville have realized a glaring weakness the team has. When Colt Ryan is not on the floor Evansville will struggle and a team might be able to pick up a win by trying to get Ryan in to foul trouble or completely isolating him from the Evansville offensive sets. Evansville needs to develop players throughout this season who can take over for Colt Ryan after he graduates. If not, Evansville basketball will be in for a long season next year because the Aces showed how they played without Ryan in the game. This is only the beginning of the season however and the season is long so Evansville has a lot of time to improve. This might be the spark that Evansville needs to send the team on a long winning streak. When Butler was making its second run to the National Championship game in 2011 it was a loss on the road at Youngs Town State which started the Bulldogs’ on their second big run in Division I basketball. Could this be the same moment for Evansville?

On Friday Evansville faced the Yale Bulldogs from the Ivy League. The Ivy league is interesting because it does not give scholarships to the players and the Ivy League coaches are not allowed to work with their players for summer instruction as all other Division I coaches are, so the players can pursue internships to future their careers once basketball is over. Yale’s coach James Jones is one of the biggest proponents in the Ivy League of giving coaches a chance to work with their players at least for a limited basis during the summer.

With Colt Ryan out with a hip pointer some other players had to step up for Evansville. The Aces responded to this challenge and picked up a 66-56 victory over the Bulldogs. One of those was freshman D.J. Balentine who had 16 points. Balentine said the Aces could not worry about players who were not available to play. “With him out, definitely someone needs to step up.”Jordan Jahr said the team really stepped up during the game against Yale. “Last night I think we were a little shocked playing without Colt and didn’t realize what we had to do coming out in that game. But then, I think today we all realized we were going to be without him, so we needed to step up and make plays. Everyone contributed down the line.”

Marty Simmons said the Aces played hard throughout the game. “I thought they played with a lot of energy — a lot of passion. I thought they made a lot of extra-effort plays. That’s really everybody that played – second, third and fourth efforts. If one guy was beat, they really showed help. That was hard.” Also, Simmons stated there are still times when Evansville struggles with running the game plan. “We had lulls there toward the end of the first half when we got stationary. We tried to play one on one instead of getting the basketball reversed two and three and four times. I just thought tonight our guys were able to adjust, and we just executed better.”Simmons said Balentine played well for the Aces and he is becoming more aggressive. “He just was really aggressive. He gave us a huge lift. When he came in, he made big shots and it just kind of energized everybody – everybody on the floor – I think it energized people in the stands.” Balentine agrees with his coach that he is now being more aggressive after the third game of the season. “It was all mindset and just being aggressive. I came in the first couple games timid – Notre Dame and Buffalo – just playing scared and timid. This game, I really took it upon myself to play my game, be aggressive and score.”

With the final game of the sub regional and the third game in three days Evansville squared off against the Western Illinois Leathernecks at the Ford Center and Evansville picked up a 49 44 victory.  Colt Ryan played sparingly  in the game for Evansville. He played three minutes with one assist and then was removed from the game because Marty Simmons believed he was not ready to play. “He warmed up, and we thought he would give it a chance to play. He’s just not ready right now.”

The Aces struggled to beat the Leathernecks as Western Illinois led for a large majority of the game. Simmons was impressed how Evansville played throughout the game, “I can’t say enough. Three games in three days against very good competition, and their ability to reach down and compete the way they did the last three or four minutes was pretty special. Give Western Illinois all the credit in the world. They’re very well-coached and certainly defended us outstandingly, but our guys just hung in there and made some special plays that gave us an opportunity to win.”  Evansville gave the Leathernecks a lot of easy points inside the paint with offensive rebounds. A late charge by the Aces put the game out of reach. D.J. Balentine made some clutch free throws with 30 seconds on the clock to push the lead to five points at 47 to 42. Simmons was happy with the overall effort of his team throughout the last three days. “I think more than anything I was happy for my team to fight and scratch and claw the way they have the last two nights. That’s why we do this. That’s why we coach – to see those guys work as hard as they did and to get rewarded in that way was neat.”

Written by theSPORTSfeast Evansville Insider Bryce Weiler

Photo Courtesy of “The Sports Beast” James Range

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