Holding his head in his hands, rubbing his eyes at times, sophomore guard Dmitri Thompson seemed at a loss for words as he tried to describe Saturday night’s 82-64 loss to James Madison University in Colonial Athletic Association men’s basketball.
There was the blooming first half where the Elon University men’s basketball team shot 60.7 percent from the field and 69.2 percent from 3-point range.
But there also was the 25 percent clip — and the dim 6.3 percent (1 of 16) performance from long distance — in the second half. Add that to the foul trouble Elon’s post players were in and the trouble at the free throw line, and that’s a lot on Thompson’s mind.
He shook his head once or twice more, assessing Elon’s current status at 12-9 overall and 3-5 in the CAA and the frustrating offensive output in the last 20 minutes.
“If you’re starting to struggle, you have to do the little things,” Thompson said. “Play defense, first of all. Get offensive rebounds. Cut hard. Get easy points. We shied away from all of that, and it showed.
“We got away from the stuff that was working for us in the first half. We couldn’t execute that much. That hurt us, really.”
Shooting the lights out — the Phoenix was 8 of 11 from 3 at one point — Elon’s first-half performance was almost too good to be true.
And a glance at the statsheet proved that.
Despite that hot start, the Phoenix led by just one at the break, something indicative of how well James Madison was cracking Elon’s defense.
So Elon coach Matt Matheny tried to shake things up to start the second half.
To counter, Shakir Brown buried a 3-pointer on the first possession of the half to give the Dukes the lead.
“We started out the second half with a trap, and they got a 3 out of it,” Matheny said. “I thought let’s be aggressive defensively. It didn’t work out.”
And then the fouls came rapidly.
Freshman forward Tyler Seibring and junior guard/forward Christian Hairston each picked up their third fouls early in the second half, and they both had four by the 14:03 mark.
That further limited Elon’s options in the post, stagnating an already static offense.
Elon went eight of 10 possessions without scoring as James Madison built a 63-53 lead, and missed its first 10 3-pointers of the half. Over the first 12 minutes of the half, the Phoenix scored just 12 points.
Matheny pointed to offensive deficiencies in the last four games prior to Saturday (three of them losses), and that’s also taking into account that freshman guard Steven Santa Ana has now missed two games with a broken hand.
The reality is that while Elon ranks in the top three in the CAA in scoring, the Phoenix is dead last in scoring defense at 78.9 points per game. Defense is a principal issue.
But the shortcomings in the second half — freshman guard Dainan Swoope said it was a “tough one to get a hold of” and that Elon “got away from the offensive stuff we wanted to do” — exposed Elon’s offense, which scored the second-fewest points it has all year.
“The motion offense, it takes time,” Matheny said. “Nothing has changed. Listen, nobody wants to lose. But nothing has changed. We want to get better. We want to be as good as we can be.
“Here we are, a team that’s playing a lot of young guys in a league where we were picked last that’s ninth in the country, playing against really good teams right now, and we are fighting our tails off. I think it’s fun to watch. … We have a pretty good thing going.
“The difficult thing is you have to swallow some of these losses. It ages me. Our guys are resilient. They’re tough. We have to stay the course.”
It doesn’t get easier, either. Elon travels to Hofstra University and Northeastern University next week.
Last year, Elon hit a rough patch in mid-January before finishing the season with victories over Northeastern and the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, both of which shared a piece of the CAA regular season title.
As Matheny said, it takes time.
“We can get better from this experience,” Matheny said. “But we have to stay the course, because we have some guys that can play.”