BALTIMORE — One point in the final five minutes, 51 seconds.
Despite the terrible first half and the wild comeback to take the lead, the Elon University men’s basketball team scored just one point in the last 5:51 against Drexel University, losing 57-56 in the first round of the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) Tournament Friday night.
“[There were] so many plays that, if they would have gone a different way, we’d come out victorious,” said head coach Matt Matheny. “But we came up short.”
It’s a familiar feeling for the Phoenix, who failed to score a point in the final 4:13 of Feb. 25’s loss to the College of William & Mary at home.
It also closes the book on a season that started with uncertainty, raised hope in nonconference play and ultimately faded into the offseason with more questions than answers.
The game goes awry
The worst half of Elon’s season came at the most inopportune time possible.
Elon scored 21 points, its lowest output at the halftime mark all season, against a Drexel team that entered the night with five wins.
The five wins Drexel had tied for the third-worst record in the country, and lost to Divison II-University of Alaska at Anchorage in November. Only Central Connecticut State University and Chicago State University have less, with four wins on the season.
But Drexel’s level of play was increeasing heading into the tournament, starting with its 81-76 loss to Elon Feb. 18. The Dragons won at William & Mary 74-69 Feb. 20 and beat the University of Delaware 74-64 Feb. 25. In its last regular season game, Drexel lost on a late shot to Northeastern University 61-59.
“Drexel’s been playing well,” Matheny said. “It was a great victory up in Philly when we beat them. But they were a different team in our game up there than they had been during the season … We knew they had been playing well.”
The Dragons stormed out on Elon, leading 18-2 through seven minutes of the game. Drexel held a 17-point lead twice in the game, matching its season-high for a lead. Matheny said he was “surprised” at how poorly Elon played to start the game.
Drexel’s game plan, according to head coach Bruiser Flint, was simple enough.
“We talked a lot about keeping them off of the 3-point line,” Flint said. “Our big thing all year was, ‘They were the only team to score 80 against us. And they killed us from the 3-point line.’ So that was one of our big [emphases] before the game.”
The defense executed that plan to near-perfection in the first half, as Elon went 1-for-7 from behind the arc and committed five turnovers.
“I think they did a great job defensively just pressuring the ball, trying to take away some of our options,” said junior guard/forward Christian Hairston. “I personally think that they were more aggressive this game than they were the last two times we’ve played them.”
Matheny added, “They did a tremendous job of taking away some of our strengths.”
In Drexel’s previous game with a 17-point lead, the Dragons lost to Pennsylvania State University 63-57 Dec. 19. The Dragons blew the biggest lead they had this season once, and for a stretch in the second half, it looked like it was going to happen again.
The Phoenix displayed its finest qualities from the season in an offensive onslaught during the second half. The team drilled shots from deep, making three 3-pointers, and drove to the basket with tenacity and authority, finding easy layups and drawing fouls.
“I felt like if we could play well in the first few minutes of the half, it’d be a great game, and we did,” Matheny said.
Freshman forward Tyler Seibring drilled a 3-pointer, and junior guard Luke Eddy made a driving layup to give Elon a 55-51 lead with 5:51 to go.
The back-to-back baskets were the climax of Elon’s long fight back in the second half, cutting away at the 13-point halftime deficit in little bursts and spurts.
Elon even made 9 of 10 free throws, something that the Phoenix has struggled with during this season. Through 14:09 of the second half, Elon had outscored Drexel 34-17.
“When we were chipping away in the second half and eventually took the lead, I think we as a team, we thought that we could finish the game,” Hairston said. “Obviously they didn’t quit, they made a run to start the game, we made a run and eventually it just came to blows at the end of the game.”
But down the stretch, the problems at the free-throw line reemerged, as Hairston missed both free throws with 2:38 to go, and Eddy made 1 of 2 with 56 seconds left.
For a team that shoots so well from the outside, Elon only shot 66 percent from the free-throw line all season, and went 10-for-16 Friday night.
“We want to shoot, as a team, 70-percent from the foul line consistently, and we didn’t do that this year,” Matheny. “It’s an area that we definitely can improve on, and it reared its ugly head tonight.”
Elon also didn’t score from the field, missing its last six shots after Eddy’s layup.
“We missed a lot of free throws, [and] we just have to do better on both ends towards the end of the game,” Hairston said. “[After] those last two media [timeouts], those are the big time moments in the game, and we as a team have to do a better job executing.”
Eddy missed the potential go-ahead shot with seven seconds left, and Drexel sophomore guard Sammy Mojica collected the rebound.
Mojica bounced the ball past Eddy to Drexel freshman guard Terrell Allen, who dribbled the ball into the corner and away from Elon defenders.
Then, with Mojica yelling at him, Allen threw the ball up to the sky, with the ball falling to the floor as the buzzer sounded.
The Dragons ended Elon’s season with Allen’s heave, putting a disappointing bow on a stumble down the stretch for Elon.
Looking to the future
With such a young team coming into the season, taking into account the loss of 2015 CAA Rookie of the Year Elijah Bryant, it was tough to figure how Elon would do in 2015-16. The preseason poll picked Elon last in the conference.
But the immediate results — a win at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, a close loss at Syracuse University, a six-game winning streak — had the Phoenix expecting a lot entering CAA play.
But a theme emerged during conference play: Elon was close to its strong conference brethren but it couldn’t figure out how to beat them.
A seven-point loss to Northeastern Dec. 31. A four-point loss to Hofstra University Jan. 9, and then a two-point loss at Hofstra Jan. 28. Three-straight four-point losses in February, to Towson University, at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and to the College of Charleston.
With seven of its eight players that averaged 10 or more minutes returning, learning how to finish close games becomes priority number one.
“What an incredible season to learn from,” Matheny said. “We encouraged our players returning to remember this feeling, and remember this season and all of the close games, and remember how it feels, and why we came up short.”
Elon went 2-7 in conference play at home, and held a lead in the second half of six of those home losses. And all season long, Matheny preached how close Elon was to some of the CAA’s best teams.
But after losing six of its last eight games, with the final loss in the first round to one of the conference’s worst teams, where does Elon go from here? Matheny says that the progress he’s seen from Elon before Friday night will be the focal point.
“No delay, let’s keep going with our returners,” Matheny said, “It’s very clear to me, [and] I think it’ll be very clear to them, all the work that we have to do to be successful in this league.”
The future appears bright for Elon going forward, but the conclusion to the season — and especially the final game — raised concerns about slow starts, poor shooting at the free-throw line, and the ability to finish close games.
And the Phoenix will have to wait until November to try to quell those concerns.