After a season-long waltz through the MEAC and a second straight conference tournament championship, Morgan State – to borrow a horse racing term – stepped up in class on Friday afternoon and faced Big East champ West Virginia in the first round of the NCAA tournament. It was akin to going from 6 furlongs to a mile and a quarter. In other words, you better be able to keep up the pace.
If Friday’s game would have, in fact, been a horse race, Morgan State was eased at the 3/4 pole. West Virginia led by 30 points throughout a good portion of the second half en route to a comfortable 77-50 win.
It wasn’t pretty.
Before I dissect what wrong on Friday (plenty) and who was responsible (everyone), it would be a disservice to all that Morgan State accomplished to not at least recognize, again, just how far the basketball program at Hillen Rd. has come over the last 3 years. They’re now the perennial title favorite in the MEAC and the Bears will undoubtedly be able to build on today’s thrashing by West Virginia and last year’s dismantling at the hands of Oklahoma. They’re becoming “battle tested” in these spring mismatches and as time goes on at Morgan State, they’ll figure out what they need to do to compete at “the next level”, the way Ohio University did on Thursday night when they eliminated Georgetown.
Today, though, if the truth is going to be told, Morgan State did not represent themselves or their capabilities very well. The Bears team you saw on Friday wasn’t the team that went 18-1 in conference play in 2009-2010.
And that’s not to take anything at all away from West Virginia. In fact, the Mountaineers showed the Bears a little something about “what’s under the hood” early on after falling behind 14-5.
When West Virginia got off to a wretched start and trailed by 9 points eight minutes into the game, they stormed back with energy, muscle and hard work to go on a 14-2 run and stagger the Bears with a first-half knockdown.
On the flip side, when Morgan State was urged to re-establish themselves by coach Todd Bozeman, there wasn’t much response. Trailing 26-21 with 5 minutes left in the opening 20 minutes, the Bears wilted, throwing up wild shots, failing to rebound under either basket and, in general, just letting the game get away from them to eventually trail at the half, 38-27.
So what wrong?
Other than surging out to a shocking 10-0 lead, what went RIGHT? Answer: The hot water worked in the showers after the game…that’s about it.
For starters, Reggie Holmes picked the worst day of the year to have his worst game of the year. He went 4-17 from the floor and spent nearly all of the game in single digits before finally finishing with 12 points in the final game of his sensational, record-setting career at Morgan State.
The loss certainly wasn’t all Reggie Holmes’ fault — not by a long shot. But he appeared almost disinterested in the first half, never got involved in the offensive flow, and wasn’t a concern for the Mountaineers from start to finish. In fairness, Holmes was marked expertly throughout the first half by Devin Ebanks…and wasn’t able to win the individual battle with Ebanks that was a necessity for Morgan State if they hoped to stay in the game.
Kevin Thompson got off to a good start with 5 of Morgan’s first 9 points and looked ready for the challenge of facing one of the nation’s top teams. Midway through the first half, though, he picked up his 2nd foul and West Virginia feasted during his absence. And upon his return, Thompson just wasn’t the same player. Throughout the second half, he too looked as if he was out of gas.
The game was decided in the final 10 minutes or so of the first half. With both Thompson and Holmes on the bench with two fouls each, the Bears needed to put together a solid stretch of basketball without their two star players. It didn’t happen. As their early lead dwindled, Morgan State lost their composure on virtually every trip down the floor. Wild shots went up, offensive rotations and screens became non-existent, and it just looked like the Bears thought the only way to win was finish with 100 shots in a 40-minute game. The more they shot, the more they fell behind.
I said during the week the way I thought Morgan State could at least stay competitive would be to shorten the game. If they could get a lead (which they did), the tonic then would be to eat as much clock as possible, get off one high percentage shot and crash the boards at both ends of the court. Rather than milk the clock, the Bears tried to get into a track meet with the Mountaineers. That was a bad move.
And any thought from the Bears that a 38-27 halftime deficit was somewhat manageable was completely erased five minutes into the final half when the Mountaineers stretched their lead to 18 points. It was as if nothing was said in the lengthy intermission break. Or, perhaps, plenty was said but no one did any listening.
It was strange for me – someone who has seen Morgan State six times this season – to watch them get outworked, outmuscled and out-everything’d once the going got tough late in the first half and early in the second half.
No one expected the Bears to win. West Virginia is REALLY good. But I expected more effort. More fight. More quality. It just wasn’t there for Morgan State over the last 30 minutes or so.
It might be this simple: West Virginia is just a lot better than Morgan State. That’s certainly possible. But that Morgan State team I watched today was not the same Morgan State team that played so well during the MEAC regular season and conference tournament.
And even though they accomplished a great deal this year – and last – the players and Todd Bozeman know in their heart of hearts they didn’t put their best foot forward on Friday afternoon in Buffalo.
It was a sad way to end an otherwise outstanding season for the Bears.