Game 1: Close but no cigar

Robert Morris (0-1) fell to Penn (1-0) 76-75 in the season opener. It was a thrilling game, full of rookie mistakes on both sides. At one point, Robert Morris trailed by 17 in the second half. Their first lead of the season came with 2:30 left in the game, when they went up 72-71.


RMU gave up a Darien Nelson-Henry layup with 31 seconds remaining. Rodney Pryor’s elbow jumper with a few seconds left in the game went a little long and a rebound couldn’t be tracked down as time expired.


Thoughts:


-Let’s start with Rodney Pryor, who is all sorts of unbelievable. He finished with a game high 28 points on 12-18 shooting and 4-9 from three. He also added eight rebounds, two assists and two blocks to the stat sheet.


The wheels would have fell off quick without Pryor, but give credit where it is deserved: big time players come up in big time moments. The turning point in the game came with 6:54 remaining, where Pryor hit a jumper, followed by a Kavon Stewart three, another Pryor three and an Elijah Minnie three. That helped spark a 15-2 run over a four minute stretch.


If anything, it would have been nice for RMU to give Pryor even more touches. He was just feeling it. I don’t take away moral victories, but his performance makes you feel really good about the outlook of this team moving forward. There will be bad games, but the good far exceeds the bad.


-Two other guys who played really well: Elijah Minnie and Aaron Tate. Minnie finished with 15 and 9 on 6-13 shooting. His offensive game looks really polished. Even when he drove to the hoop, he did so a little more with his back to the basket. He’ll be one of the eight best players in the NEC by seasons end, in my opinion.


And how about Aaron Tate? A few weeks removed from surgery, he goes for eight points and five boards. Tate is ALWAYS at the right place at the right time, on both sides of the ball. He didn’t start the game (more on that later) but he played a lot in the second half. He played 25 minutes overall.


-It certainly wasn’t all pretty. RMU’s defense left a lot to be desired, especially in the first half. Penn, who was a below-average offensive team last season, scored 44 points in the first half and shot 50.9 percent from the floor and 10-26 (38.5 percent) from three for the game.


The defense played a very strong first five minutes, then a really strong final seven minutes, but left a lot to be desired in-between. In a lot of ways, this looked like it was going to be last year’s Lafayette game all over again. Penn got into rhythm with some open three’s early, and by the time RMU was able to guard anything late, the Quakers were already feeling it. Example: Penn guard Antonio Woods confidently squared into a three pointer as time expired in the first half from another area code. Penn was feeling it.


-Penn’s Sam Jones, Matt Howard and Darien Nelson-Henry all played really good games. Jones was especially feeling it in the first half, where I believe he had 15 of his team-high 21 points. Nelson-Henry got a few big rebounds when it mattered most, and of course had the game-winning bucket.


-Time for the negative stuff: Andre Frederick started the game at center, and was not good. The first possession of the season he got called for a moving screen. He was caught sleeping on defense a few times. He went 0-3 shooting despite some good looks on offensive rebounds. It was not the start he needed for the season. He played 12 minutes, most of those coming in the first half. I’m not sure he saw the floor after getting pulled early in the second half.


-If I had to describe Kavon Stewart’s career thus far, I would just point to that game. He was awful in the first half, and then looked like the Kavon many of us expect in the final seven minutes. All five of his turnovers came in the first half. He threw a pass off of Rodney Pryor’s head at one point. He dribbled off his knee out of bounds another time. There were possessions he was dribbling to no spot in particular.


Then, it just kind of all changed. he went at the basket with a purpose. He drew fouls, taking 13 free throws overall. He confidently stepped into and made his only three point attempt of the game. It was beautiful. There will have to be more consistency, but I was encouraged to see how he played late.


Jordan Lester (1-3 shooting, one assist, 11 minutes) has handles. That’s all.


Matty McConnell started the game hot but struggled late. He finished the game 2-7 shooting and 1-4 from three. He was able to effect the game in other ways though, finishing with a team-high five assists. He looked really comfortable setting up the offense for his teammates.


-Prediction: Aaron Tate makes a three this season.


-Play of the game: one minute remaining, RMU down two. Rodney Pryor is set in the right corner. Both Kavon Stewart, the ball handler, and Elijah Minnie run over to him. Minnie sets the screen, Kavon hands the ball off to Pryor, forcing a switch defensively. Pryor used a beautiful hesitation at the elbow to blow by his defender and finish with his left hand.


-A few coaching things: RMU appeared to switch to a man-to-man defense for the final two possessions of the game. The first possession resulted in some miscommunication on a switch and a wide open three for Antonio Woods. The other resulted in Nelson-Henry getting good position on a Tate isolation. He was significantly larger than Tate, and it resulted in the game-winning bucket.


Also, I have to wonder if Toole doesn’t regret going two-for-one in the final possession of the game. RMU was down one with 30 seconds left. I was surprised they didn’t try and get to the basket with about 15 seconds left, so if you miss, you can foul and get another shot at things with a chance to tie or win.


Hindsight is undefeated. Toole definitely deserves the benefit of the doubt. Pryor got a pretty good look anyway, considering the whole arena knew he was getting that last look. Not going two-for one surprised me is all.


That’s about all I got. More tonight and tomorrow. A trip to Cincinnati is in store for Sunday.


–Chris Cappella

–@C_Cappella

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