When it came down to crunch time, the Elon University men’s basketball team couldn’t limit the University of North Carolina at Charlotte’s freewheeling offense.
In a high-scoring, back-and-forth affair, the 49ers outlasted the Phoenix 100-95 in nonconference action Monday night at Alumni Gym despite sophomore guard Steven Santa Ana’s career-high 32 points.
Santa Ana’s burst of seven straight points cut Charlotte’s lead to one with 3:30 remaining, but the 49ers responded with a basket by freshman guard Quentin Jackson and a breakaway dunk by freshman forward Najee Garvin that prompted an Elon timeout.
After Elon sophomore forward Tyler Seibring missed a corner 3-pointer, redshirt junior guard Hudson Price buried a three from atop the key to put Charlotte up 96-89, effectively sealing the victory.
“Defense was a big emphasis for us this offseason and something we’ve been stressing,” Santa Ana said. “Clearly, we’ve got work to do.
“I think our defense is definitely getting better, but down the stretch we have to be able to get stops and make plays down the stretch.”
Sophomore forward Karolis Kundrotas scored a career-high 16 points, and Seibring and redshirt junior forward Brian Dawkins each chipped in 10.
Price, the son of Charlotte head coach Mark Price, had a team-high 23 points.
Santa Ana was the catalyst in a 10-2 Elon run that gave the Phoenix a 73-67 advantage midway through the second half.
He scored in transition, Seibring hit a three, and then Santa Ana drew a foul on a bucket underneath. Santa Ana was 12 of 17 from the field and five of nine from three.
“The whole game, we got the looks we wanted,” Kundrotas said. “We ran the offense really well and got good shots, the shots we wanted from plays that we run.”
Charlotte shot 71.4 percent (10 of 14) from 3-point range. Sophomore guard Jon Davis scored 22 points, senior forward Anthony Vanhook added 16 and redshirt-senior guard Braxton Ogbueze chipped in 10.
The 49ers led 44-43 at halftime. Davis took control during the second half, driving the lane and sinking all three 3-pointers he attempted.
“In a lot of ways, we’re in the same boat as last year. We lost a lot of close games last year, and we couldn’t rely on getting stops,” said Elon head coach Matt Matheny. “Tonight was the same. When I said that, it sounds a little discouraging, but it’s not. Here’s why:
“We’re changing our defense, and we’re not there yet. What you want to do is win in the process of improving. We’re going to be a better team in the long run.”
The game was tied 14 times and the lead changed 14 times as well.
Elon falls to 1-1 and heads to the University of South Florida on Nov. 17.
“We want to come out this season and earn respect for ourselves,” Santa Ana said. “We have to play defense. We have to get stops. We have to be tough. We have to get rebounds. We have to hit our free throws.
“All the little things are going to add up. We can play offense with the best of them. All the little things are going to make a difference for us in the long run.”
NOTES…: Elon beat Charlotte 85-74 last year in both teams’ season opener and Price’s debut as head coach. … Monday was the 17th anniversary of Price having his number retired by the Cleveland Cavaliers. … Elon was 18 of 26 from the free throw line.