WILMINGTON — The Elon University men’s basketball team stayed within five points of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington in the final seven minutes of the game, but could not take the lead, dropping 86-82 Thursday night in Colonial Athletic Association action.
The Phoenix cut the deficit to one at four different moments in the second half and led for a grand total of 15 seconds in the game. The Seahawks were able to keep Elon away, answering nearly every Elon basket with a basket on the other end to extend their win streak to a school-record 10 straight victories.
“We’re a better team now than when we got [to Trask Coliseum],” said Elon's head coach Matt Matheny, who turned 46 Thursday. “I think we got better tonight — I think we played better than we’d been playing, and I thought our guys are preparing very well. We’re so close. We are so close — and I’m not just talking about tonight, I’m just talking about how close we are, as a team, to being good. We are really close.”
The Seahawks (19-5 overall, 11-2 CAA) grabbed 17 offensive rebounds, converting them into 15 second-chance points en route to. The number is too high for Elon junior guard/forward Christian Hairston’s liking.
"As a team, it starts with us big guys — we got to hit them,” Hairston said. “We also count on our guards coming down and sandwich-boxing [out]. But as a unit, it's team rebounding — we don't care who grabs the rebound, as long as somebody does. 17 is way too many."
Elon (14-12, 5-8) was led by freshman forward Tyler Seibring, who had 18 points on 7-of-11 shooting and 2-of-3 from deep. He also grabbed five rebounds — all defensive — in 31 minutes of action, which was “no surprise” to Hairston.
Seibring and Hairston both found multiple opportunities to bring the ball forward to break UNCW’s full-court press. The Seahawks were willing to let Elon play 4-on-3 if they broke the press, and Seibring appeared to get more comfortable with dribbling as the game progressed.
“They're trying to make other players make plays — they don't want Luke dribbling up the court because that's what we're comfortable with doing,” Seibring said. “Coach Matheny did a great job of preparing us for that, and all of the assistant coaches did a lot of drills on that exact play and all the different options that we had. It's not my normal comfort level, and same with [Hairston], but we were prepared to do that and they kind of turned it back in the second half."
Seibring’s 3-pointers were two of just five for the Phoenix on the night, something that UNCW head coach Kevin Keatts had his team focused on in preparing for Elon.
“They make 10 threes a game, and when you look at it, if we can hold those guys to five threes, I felt like we could always win the game,” Keatts said. “One thing we talked about is limiting their 3-point shots — running them off the 3-point line and not putting them on the free throw line. We didn’t do such a good job with the free throw part, but Elon’s a very dangerous team from three, and if you can get out of the game with them only making five threes, you’re happy with it.”
Hairston came off the bench after starting 17 straight games for Elon, and had 14 points and five rebounds in 17 minutes. Hairston said Matheny told him after the team meal that redshirt sophomore forward Brian Dawkins would start in place of him, which returned Elon to its original starting lineup from the beginning of the season.
"Coach didn't really say that there was a decision behind it,” Hairston said. “My role on the team is to play basketball — I don't really look into the lineups. All I know is, when I come in, I try to be aggressive and do the best I can for Elon basketball.
“I was coming off the bench for Brian in the beginning of the season before he got sick. Lineups change — we've had a few this year, and I've seen a few lineup changes in my three years here. It doesn't affect any of us, we just play basketball."
Seibring added that Hairston “doesn’t have an ego.” In addition to those two, junior guard Luke Eddy scored 15 points, and sophomore guard Dmitri Thompson contributed 12. UNCW had four players in double-digits as well, led by sophomore guard Jordan Talley’s 19.
The Phoenix returns home for a match-up with the College of Charleston, who currently sit two games ahead of Elon in sixth place in the CAA. Tipoff is at 7 p.m. Saturday.