After fifth-year guard Rob Higgins cut University of North Carolina Greensboro’s lead to three with 36 seconds to go, it looked like the Elon University men’s basketball team might overcome a 24-point deficit and pull off a miraculous comeback win. Yet, an errant pass by graduate student forward Zac Ervin with 33 seconds remaining all but ensured Elon’s loss, as the Phoenix went on to fall 82-73 to the Spartans Dec. 10 at the Greensboro Coliseum Complex. 

Elon head coach Billy Taylor said a play such as Ervin’s turnover “can’t happen,” especially for a player with so much experience. Taylor also said he was disappointed with how Ervin handled “light pressure” on the inbound.  

“Zac's a veteran guy,” Taylor said. “Was hoping that he would make the right play there and again, he's kicking himself that he turned it over.” 

Jack Prahinski | Elon News Network
Graduate student forward Zac Ervin steps to the line to shoot free throws during the the Elon University men's basketball team's 82-73 loss to the University of North Carolina Greensboro Dec. 10 at the Greensboro Coliseum Complex. Ervin had a key turnover late for the Phoenix.

Elon junior forward Sam Sherry said a play like Ervin’s turnover “happens to the best of us,” and that he and the rest of the team could have made themselves more available for him to pass to. 

“I could have been there, I was at half court, I could have made myself an outlet, so that's on me as well,” Sherry said. “You can't just pin that one play just on one person. It's collectively, as a team, and we'll fix that.”

While the Phoenix came up short, Taylor said he liked the way his team competed against a “really, really good” UNCG team. With the win, the Spartans moved to 8-1 in the season, which is their best start in program history. UNCG even holds an impressive win over No. 14 University of Arkansas. 

While Taylor said he “was pleased with the last 20 minutes” of the game, he said the way his team came out in the first half ultimately was their downfall in a game which the Phoenix never led in points. 

Elon struggled to generate offense in the first half — its 35 points heading into the break marked its second lowest amount of first half points scored this season. The lowest first-half scoring output of 31 points came in the 78-70 loss to Winthrop University Nov. 19. 

Taylor said his team was settling for a lot of jump shots in the first half, many of which were contested. He also said his team did not attack the paint as much as they could have, as they finished with only eight points in the paint. 

Aside from Higgins, who had 12 points in the first half, no other Elon player scored more than six points in the opening 20 minutes.

Jack Prahinski | Elon News Network
Fifth-year guard Rob Higgins shouts as he directs traffic during the the Elon University men's basketball team's 82-73 loss to the University of North Carolina Greensboro Dec. 10 at the Greensboro Coliseum Complex. Higgins scored a team-high 20 points.

The Phoenix shot only 31.3%, or 10-32 from the field in the first half. They also only made four 3-pointers. In comparison, the Spartans were on fire shooting 54.3% from the field while cashing in on seven threes. UNCG also gave Elon fits on the glass as they beat them 23-16 in the rebounding battle. 

Even with Elon enduring a brutal six-minute stretch where they were outscored 21-1 by UNCG, they did not wring in the towel early — as the Phoenix started to find offensive rhythm late in the waning minutes of the first half. Elon scored 15 points in the last four minutes and headed into the locker room trailing 35-50. 

UNCG’s 50 points was the most allowed in a first half by Elon this season. Senior forward Mikeal Brown-Jones was a dominant force for the Spartans in the opening period, notching 15 points and nine rebounds. 

Taylor said with Elon’s hot 3-point shooting to begin the season, he feels like Elon has neglected some of their “paint game.” In their last three outings, the Phoenix shot poorly from beyond the arc; including 30.8% against UNCG, 23.8% against Radford University and 17.4% against Warren Wilson University. 

“Balance is what we’re looking for,” Taylor said. “Paint production as well as being able to make our threes from the perimeter.” 

In the second half, the Phoenix scored 18 points in the paint, asserting themselves on the block. 

Elon’s attack in the paint was led by Sherry, who quickly found his footing. Sherry scored 12 of his 16 points and ripped down seven of his 11 boards in the second half. He came up just one shy of his career high of 12 rebounds. He also recorded one authoritative block. 

Sherry said Elon’s unselfish style of play this game allowed him and others to be in a position to succeed. 

“The guards were being very unselfish and finding me in different positions,” Sherry said. “They're great shooters, and if it comes off, I'll just get the rebound for them and kick it out or take it myself.”

Jack Prahinski | Elon News Network
Junior forward Sam Sherry cheers on a teammate from the bench during the Elon University men's basketball team's 82-73 loss to the University of North Carolina Greensboro Dec. 10 at the Greensboro Coliseum Complex. Sherry scored 16 points and notched 11 rebounds.

Taylor also made the decision to play multiple big lineups — including Sherry, sophomore forward Deandre Smart and freshman forward Kendall Campbell — after getting “beat up on the glass” in the first half. While Smart and Campbell each only recorded one second-half rebound, Taylor said both of them played with a valuable level of physicality”. Elon matched UNCG’s rebounding at 19 apiece in the second period. 

“We knew that we had to play with more force, we thought we should go a little bit bigger to do that,” Taylor said. 

Senior forward JaDun Michael and freshman forward Isacc Harrell were also part of the physicality Taylor imposed in the second half. 

While the other forwards might have been effective at altering shots and contributing to holding UNCG to 32 second-half points, it was quite apparent that Sherry was the anchor that held it down for Elon. 

“I think I can be very special,” Sherry said. “Part of that is going into the glass and making myself present inside.” 

The Phoenix held the Spartans to just nine made shots on 34.6% from the field in the second half. They also put up a mere 10 points in the paint and made only three 3-pointers. 

On top of anchoring the defense, Taylor said Sherry was a key contributor to the offense. 

“We gotta get him touches,” Taylor said. “He draws fouls, lets us set our defense up. We did a good job of recognizing that and throwing it inside and playing with a little bit more physicality and assertiveness.” 

Sherry also said Elon did a good job of sharing the ball and looking for each other more in the closing 20 minutes. 

On 40.5% shooting from the field in the second half, Elon outscored UNCG 38-32. But it was not enough to pull off a comeback victory.  

Higgins’ 3-pointer cut the game to 72-75 with 36 seconds left allowed the Phoenix to be the closest they had been to the Spartans since the 19:34 mark of the first half when the Spartans held a 3-0 lead. However, the Spartans had composure down the stretch as they hit their free throws. Brown-Jones, graduate student Kobey Langley and freshman guard Donovan Atwell proved invaluable, as they went a combined seven of eight from the charity stripe in the closing 33 seconds. 

With the loss, Elon’s losing streak to UNCG extends to six straight. The Phoenix have not won against the Spartans since the 2015-16 season.

Elon is now 6-4 this season, which is their best start since the 2017-18 campaign. The Phoenix now look to a home matchup scheduled for 7 p.m. on Dec. 15 against Bridgewater College at the Schar Center.