Three times during Thursday night’s men’s basketball game, Elon University freshman guard Elijah Bryant took the ball up the floor, and without looking to pass, stepped up and took a 3-pointer.
And all three times, he made the shot.
Elon coach Matt Matheny gave his offense some more freedom as the Phoenix topped the College of William & Mary 85-79. That freedom, visible clearly through Bryant’s play, is a sign of a maturing team that should be able to finish far higher in the Colonial Athletic Association than its predicted landing spot of last place.
Bryant, who’s quickly taken the reins of the offense with then-leading scorer Luke Eddy lost for the season with a torn ACL, has scored at least 20 points in four of Elon’s last six games after registering back-to-back 0-for-8 shooting nights. A heralded recruit when he arrived to Elon, Bryant has lived up to the hype so far while understanding the process.
He’s relaxed while doing it, too. After carrying the Phoenix in a 12-point swing during the game’s final minutes, Bryant leaned back in his seat in the media room, arms stretched out over the chairs on either side of him.
“It’s such a fine line because I don’t want to hold him back,” Matheny said of Bryant. “Who knows how good he can be? He’s playing really well right now, and we’re going to give him some freedom.”
Matheny calls what Bryant did thrice on Thursday a “no-pass shot,” which is very indicative of what it looks like. Bryant typically released the shot with upwards of 28 seconds on the shot clock.
“I’m pushing the ball looking for my teammates and if my defender is not going to step up to me, I trust myself to shoot the shot. My teammates trust me, too, which helps in my confidence,” Bryant said. “If I hit one, then I try to get another one. I try to limit my early shot-clock shots.”
Bryant runs with the look of a bull in his eyes, taking no prisoners from the backcourt until his finish at the rim. His court vision is probably the best on Elon’s roster, noted when he hooked up with freshman Dmitri Thompson for an alley-oop in the second half against William & Mary.
Matheny acknowledged he doesn’t give a lot of players the freedom he gives Bryant. The trust he has in Bryant comes from what Bryant’s accomplished in such little time, and at such important times.
Elon trailed the Tribe 66-60 with 5:21 to go before ending the game on a 25-13 run. During that stretch, Bryant had 10 points along with an assist on the go-ahead 3-pointer and a block of CAA preseason Player of the Year Marcus Thornton.
And that aforementioned 3-pointer, off the fingertips of junior sharpshooter Tanner Samson, was in part worked out by Bryant, too. Matheny called for Bryant to pass to Samson off a screen, but Bryant told Samson after the huddle to do a handoff instead.
Matheny couldn’t complain.
In fact, that wasn’t the first time Matheny just let his offense run wild.
“There was one time during the second half, (when) they looked at me like, ‘Who should I screen?” Matheny said. “I said you’re free to do what you want. Screen who you want. Freedom, baby. Freedom, go.”
Elon let freedom ride, particularly on the shoulders of Elijah Bryant. And that parade is set to stomp through the rest of the CAA.