By JACOB TRASK
The men’s basketball team had a tough task ahead of them last Wednesday as they squared up against No. 6 Barry University, who currently leads the Sunshine State Conference (SSC). In an 88-80 victory, the Spartans handed Barry their second loss of the season.
A somewhat dominant first half for the Spartans was followed by a tightly contested second, with Barry coming back to turn a 14-point deficit to a three-point deficit with just minutes left in the half, but the Spartans’ play makers kept the game under control. Junior forward Marcel Robinson had 22 points and senior forward Austin Rettig had 21. Junior center Duke Shelton dominated in the post, getting 11 rebounds (five more than any Barry player). Freshman point guard Mekhi Biffle also had an impressive performance, shooting three for three from the three-point line.
Barry is a force on offense, averaging 94.6 points per game this season. Their fast pace and full-court press style is one that the Spartans have struggled with this year.
“There really is no great way to prepare for it. We try in practice but once you get out there, it seems a lot faster,” said associate head coach, Justin Pecka. “We were really trying to focus on our defense, just getting back and making them take contested shots.”
The determining factor in the victory ended up being shot consistency. The Spartans posted a 57.7 percent (30-52) field goal percentage to Barry’s 48.4percent. Most other statistics were near tied between the teams.
The victory brought the Spartans to 13-5 on the season and 6-3 in the conference. Sitting at No. 2 in the conference, the Spartans look to continue with their momentum as they prepare for one of their toughest stretches of the season. In four straight road games, they face four conference opponents, all of whom they have already played once.
“We’ll just go one game at a time,” said Pecka. “It’s a lot harder the second time around. They know us now. It’ll be important to execute our offense, take good shots and play good defense.”
On Saturday, the Spartans traveled to Palm Beach to face off against Palm Beach Atlantic. Despite being dominated in the first half 38-22, the Spartans were able to come back and win the second half 40-34, but lost the game 72-62. They shot 36.5 percent from the field and were dominated in the post, outscored 44-18 in points in the paint. The loss brought them to 13-6 on the season and knocked them down to No. 3 in the conference.
This week, the Spartans will take on Nova Southeastern and Saint Leo, both of who they beat comfortably in previous matchups. In November, the Spartans beat Nova Southeastern by 20 points, and earlier this month, they beat Saint Leo by 12. They will have their hands full on Saturday with Saint Leo’s star guard, Marcus Dewberry, who averages 20.8 points per game.
The Spartans will likely see action out of starting sophomore point guard Pat Bacon, who has been out since early December with a broken foot. Bacon had surgery on the foot on Dec. 13, and is expected to make his return against Nova Southeastern on Wednesday. Bacon led the team with 15.1 points per game before his injury. Coaches are unsure to what extent Bacon will play, but the young point guard is feeling positive and was cleared for practice on Jan. 23.
“Hopefully I come back fast,” said Bacon. Bacon has been staying in shape on the elliptical since his surgery and just began shooting in practice this week. “If I can still shoot, then everything’ll be good.”
With Bacon returning, the Spartans will look to their bench to provide added support on both sides of the court. Guards, senior Matt Johnson, sophomore Freddy Ibrahim and Mekhi Biffle have performed efficiently in place of Bacon, and should add depth to the Spartans’ bench. In just his first collegiate season, Biffle is fifth on the team in points per game (9.8).
The Spartans will also look to Robinson, who has taken control of the offense in Bacon’s absence. He is second in points scored with 15.0 per game, and has averaged 24 points per game in the last five games.
“Once [Robinson] starts making a couple shots, he’s gonna make a ton of them,” Pecka said. “He’s been playing great. He’s been assertive. He’s been taking good shots as opposed to just any shot, and he’s been making them.”
At 13-6, the Spartans have improved tremendously from last season. Bacon says that the key has been roster depth. “We’re playing more as a team. I’m at 15 (points per game), Duke has 14, Marcel is at 15, Austin is at 11, and Mehki is at nine. We have a lot of scorers. Everybody’s just gelling together.”
Bacon says the team’s goal is to keep winning and make it to the division two NCAA Tournament. “Go as far as we can,” Bacon said. “That’s all we want to do is win. At the end of the day, that’s what we’re all here for.”
With numerous offensive weapons and Bacon returning, the Spartans will likely take on the second half of the season full force. All remaining games are within the conference, so consistency will be essential for them to stay at the top.