Don’t look now- that is, unless, you’re a fan of the Colonials. For the first time all season, this team looks like the club projected to finish second in the Northeast Conference.
A team ravished by injuries, including its star player Rodney Pryor, and youth stumbled out of the gate, practically falling on its face. Rock bottom came when the team fell to 3-15 and a disappointing 1-4 in conference following a 76-52 rout at the hands of Mount St. Mary’s Mountaineers in a game that saw the Colonials down 43-13 at halftime in front of their own fans at the Charles L. Sewell Center.
It didn’t help matters that players had failed to show confidence in Head Coach Andy Toole and his staff. “There just isn’t a buy-in with our program. The number of times we see same plays occur and don’t fix it is what drives you crazy,” said Toole in a postgame press conference after the setback to the Mountaineers. “I’m embarrassed. I’m responsible for it all, and I can’t get these guys to come together. It’s driving me insane.”
Toole and the Colonials had little time to brood over what had taken place the game before with the first-place Farleigh Dickenson Knights coming to town. The Colonials, still without major players Rodney Pryor and 2015 team MVP Aaron Tate, may have been the only ones who could have imagined what would come next.
In a contest that saw the Colonials down 26-13 early in the first half, the team got help from the most unlikely of places. Walk-on sophomore forward Conrad Stephens turned in a performance to be remembered, hitting all six of his shots from the field, good for 13 points in just 21 minutes of action. Stephens added six rebounds to an already impressive evening that ended with a 64-58 victory for the Colonials, and signs that they were down, but not out of the running in the NEC.
What made Stephens performance all the more impressive was how his teammates responded to the energy he brought. Even the injured players, like Pryor, flocked to Stephens at media timeouts, embracing him and looking genuinely excited for a young man getting an opportunity on a big stage.
“Conrad got guys excited and gave us energy. We’ve been looking for that energy out of our team all year. He’s a great teammate,” Toole said in the postgame press conference. “The way he played today was the way he practices. He was awesome. In the right spot. Kept it simple,” said Toole.
From there, the Colonials found a rhythm. Fueled by the pure athleticism of junior point guard Kavon Stewart and versatility and length of sophomore swingman Elijah Minnie, the Colonials ripped off victories over Central Connecticut State and Bryant, where Pryor scored 10 in a return to action.
Stewart has been especially impressive for the team. While he still makes some of the mental blunders that he always has (he still leaves his feet far too often when passing) Stewart has grown into the leader that the team seemingly needs to capture yet another NEC title.
“Kavon is getting our guys pumped up and keeping the intensity up. He’s taking ownership of this team,” said coach Toole after the Bryant victory.
Matty McConnell has also picked up his play over the course of his inaugural season with the team. His defensive intensity and desire to take- and make- big shots as a freshman are good signs for this squad not only this season, but going forward.
“Our freshmen are coming along. They’re learning. To their credit, they’re putting in extra time to get better,” said Toole.
The three-game winning streak has moved the Colonials to 4-4 in conference, just two games behind the Mountaineers for first.
The NEC is traditionally one of the most parity-filled conferences in college hoops, but this year it seems especially void of front-runners, outside of the Mountaineers. The Colonials will get to put that to the test when the teams meet Thursday in Emmitsburg, Md.
The pieces are there for this team to potentially repeat as NEC champs. They have a guy that can score at will in Pryor, an incredibly gifted athlete at point guard in Stewart, a lengthy and tenacious defender and dunk artist in Minnie, along with a supporting cast that has just enough firepower to get it done, as we’ve seen in the past three games. All of this could be put to good use, if they only buy into Toole and his staff completely, as it seems they may have.
Let’s not forget that last year’s team was struggling well into conference play. While their 9-6 NEC record was nothing to scoff at following a loss to Sacred Heart, the Colonials were in the middle of the pack and playing poorly at the end of games. It wasn’t until the move to put star forward Lucky Jones as the sixth man, dropping him from the starting lineup, that the team finally seemed to buy into what Toole was selling.
That team went from 13-14 and fading fast to 19-14 and owners of an NEC championship and a berth in the NCAA Tournament, where they would win their first game in the “Big Dance” since 1981 when they took down North Florida, 81-77. A team that had multiple players quit halfway through the season found itself in the second round of the tournament against the eventual champions, the Duke Blue Devils. And while the Colonials were beaten by the legendary blue-blood program, they put up a good fight, pulling within 10 midway through the second half.
So the point is really this: Toole has done more with less. Heck, I didn’t even mention the time he beat the Kentucky Wildcats in the first round of the NIT (is there anyone who calls themselves a fan of the Colonials or college hoops who doesn’t know about that?) or how he came back the next year with a team depleted by graduation and injuries to the point of only having eight players able to play when he beat St. John’s to return to the second round of the same tournament.
If the Colonials can come together right now, the script on this season could flip as fast Toole’s comments did in the span of a week in regards to the efforts of his team.