After Friday night’s game against Delaware, Navy head coach Ed DeChellis challenged Hasan Abdullah to play better. The junior point guard struggled against the Blue Hens, shooting 1-7 from the field, turning the ball over four times, and just generally looking uncomfortable all night. DeChellis knew that if Navy was going to have success this season, he needed Abdullah to improve.
It’s safe to say that the message was received. Abdullah registered his first career double-double, with 15 points and 10 rebounds to lead Navy to a 66-59 win over visiting Morgan State on Sunday. Shawn Anderson chipped in 11 points for Navy (7-3), which has won six of their last seven games. Phillip Carr had 15 points to lead the Bears (4-4).
Abdullah credited his coach’s advice for his improved play.
“I feel like, just being receptive with everything that coach was saying,” he said. “The assistant coaches and my teammates, we all have confidence in each other, so my teammates were picking me up, the coaching staff was picking me up. They were just telling me to play my game and play relaxed and play hard on defense, and everything else will take care of itself.”
DeChellis felt that Abdullah was putting too much pressure on himself on Friday, and wanted to take some of that pressure off of him. He wrote up a checklist of a few concrete things that he wanted Abdullah to focus on, centered around playing smart basketball.
“Things that you can hang your hat on,” he said. “Not, ‘play better.’ Not, ’hey you’ve got to make shots.’ Focus on taking care of the ball and making your teammates better. Focus on getting defensive rebounds, be a better rebounder. Make your free throws. Because he was really pressing. He was really, really pressing. I thought he played really well tonight, and very relaxed. He did a nice job.”
Abdullah connected on 4 of 6 from beyond the arc, but DeChellis was more pleased with his rebounding, as well as the fact that he had 6 assists and only 1 turnover. He also added 3 steals, further cementing himself atop the Patriot League leaderboard in that category.
Abdullah’s big night came at a perfect time. After Bryce Dulin scored 30 points against Delaware, Morgan State head coach Todd Bozeman wanted to make sure that the talented Navy senior didn’t have a repeat performance. His game plan focused on shutting down the talented senior.
“We just wanted to not give him clear looks at the basket,” said Bozeman. “He does a good job posting. We talked a lot about not letting him. They do this little step-over post, and we just came out of a game with GW where they did the same thing. We were looking for that. We just didn’t do a good enough job. The point guard got loose on us, got his rebounds.”
While his team lost the game, Bozeman’s strategy of shutting down Navy’s wings was effective. Both Dulin and Anderson struggled for much of the night, with the former being held to only three points. He and Anderson combined for ten turnovers as well, something that didn’t escape the notice of DeChellis.
“That’ll be in the conversation tomorrow,” he said. “I mean, you’ve got to be kidding me. Two senior wings? You’ve got to take care of the ball.”
With Dulin and Anderson being contained, the rest of the Navy team was able to pick up the slack. Ten different Midshipmen scored, including freshman Cam Davis, who went 3-4 from three-point range. George Kiernan, who also received a checklist from his coach after Friday’s game, had 9 points and 5 rebounds.
“How about being a better defensive rebounder? How about being a better offensive rebounder? Quit worrying about making and missing shots,” said DeChellis of the things he wanted Kiernan to work on. “You can’t hang your hat on that. Hang your hat on running the floor on both ends of the floor. How about being a better defensive rebounder? Offensive rebounder? How about being a better screener? Things that don’t put pressure on guys. It’s not like, ‘you’ve got to make threes if you’re going to play.’ Just play hard.”
Both teams got off to a slow start. Morgan State’s strategy of limiting Dulin and Anderson led to early turnovers by the Midshipmen, who ended up with 18 of them on the afternoon. Much to their coach’s chagrin, though, the Bears were unable to capitalize, scoring only 16 points off of those turnovers. Bozeman felt that those missed chances were a significant factor in the outcome of the game.
“I thought we had a lot of fast break opportunities in the first half that we didn’t convert,” he said. “I thought those came back to haunt us.”
After a sloppy and somewhat frantic pace in the opening minutes, both teams settled into the game. Morgan State went on a 6-0 run to open a 10-5 lead in the game’s first five minutes, thanks to 6 points from Carr.
A key play occurred with 12:05 left in the half. Navy’s Tom Lacey picked up his second foul, and DeChellis took him out of the game. It was Lacey who had been tasked with guarding Carr, so the job then fell to his replacement, Tyler Riemersma. With a freshman now tasked with guarding their star forward, Morgan State took advantage, turning right to Carr for a quick jumper. DeChellis decided to help Riemersma by moving to a zone defense. Because Morgan State doesn’t rely on the three-pointer as much as some teams, he felt comfortable making the switch.
“We wanted to contain the ball,” he said. “We were getting in foul trouble, and they are a team that’s got a pretty good percentage shooting from three. I think they were coming into the game at about 40 percent, which is pretty good, but they don’t take a lot of them, so I thought let’s just go ahead and stay with the zone, try to see if we can get them standing around.
“We had a hard time containing them, and that’s why we went to the zone. Hopefully, they would pass it a little more and shoot threes rather than drive.”
Morgan State had moved to a zone themselves earlier, which prompted DeChellis to replace center Evan Wieck with a better outside shooter in Kiernan. The change worked; Kiernan and Cam Davis took advantage of being left open outside to combine for 11 points. Morgan State switched back to man to man defense, and Navy had trouble adjusting, which allowed the Bears to go on a 7-0 run and take a 23-19 lead with 5:46 remaining in the half. DeChellis put Wieck back in the game, and the sophomore center responded with 5 points, a steal, and two offensive rebounds. Navy closed the half on a 13-5 run and a 32-28 lead.
Navy’s run continued after the two teams came out of the locker room. Navy went on a 9-1 run to give the Mids their largest lead of the game at 41-29. A crucial play came less than a minute into the half, when Carr picked up his fourth foul. Bozeman was forced to take him out of the game, which made it difficult for his team to close the gap.
“We played eight or nine minutes without him [Carr] on the floor, and we’re just a totally different team without him on the floor because he can score the ball, rebound,” Bozeman said. “I thought that hurt us, that he was out so long.”
Morgan State’s defense kept them in the game, and they were able to shrink Navy’s advantage to as little as three points. Without their star player, though, they weren’t able to keep Navy from opening the lead back up. Playing with a lead also seemed to have a calming effect on Shawn Anderson, who did a much better job of driving to the basket, scoring 9 of his 11 points in the second half.
“Me and coach talked, and he felt that I was definitely forcing it in the first half,” said Anderson. “A couple of us were. We weren’t swinging the ball as much and letting the offense flow. When you have a guy like Hasan and then Cam Davis, when he gets hot from the outside, they [the defense] have to start pushing away, so that opens up the inside for guys like me, Bryce, and Tom. Much of it was a credit to what they were doing on the outside which helped to open things inside for us.”
Abdullah’s third steal of the game with 21 seconds remaining sealed the victory for the Midshipmen.
“I think this was a very challenging game,” said DeChellis. “I think Morgan’s very good. I think Todd’s [Bozeman] doing a very good job with this program. I watched them on three or four games on tape. They went down to South Florida and won on the road. They played GW nose to nose for 35 minutes and had a chance to win, then they win at Mount St. Mary’s. They’ve had a tough schedule.”
This was a game of strength vs. strength, with Navy and Morgan State sharing a lot of similarities. Both squads have several returning starters from last season. Both coaches stress rebounding. Both are also known for their defense, with Morgan State entering the game with the #2 defense in the MEAC.
The emphasis on defense by both teams made this an entertaining game from a Xs & Os perspective, as both coaches constantly changed tactics and personnel to try to find an edge. Dealing with constant changes in personnel and switching back and forth between man to man and zone defenses can be mentally taxing on players, and Anderson said that it helps to have veteran leadership in that situation.
“We had a team captain a few years ago, Kevin “Pookie” Alter, and he used to always tell us that basketball was 80 percent mental, and most of life is,” he said. “And as you saw tonight, that’s what it was. Being able to adjust to things on the fly. Yeah, we did have 18 turnovers, but we responded well even though we had some mental lapses. That’s growth on this team; a veteran group that can adjust to different game strategies on the fly.”
For Abdullah, the key to handling that kind of game is not to overthink things.
“Just play basketball. At the end of the day, don’t worry too much, try not to think too much, and just play relaxed and play ball. We’ve all been playing this game for a while, so just trust in our instincts, trust in what the coaching staff sees out there, and just go on from there.”
“Our goal was to keep them under 60 points,” said DeChellis. “It’s amazing, yesterday I said if you can keep them under 60, we’ve got a chance to win this thing, because I thought that we could get over that number. They had been averaging about 66 points. I thought that if we could keep them at 60, we would have a chance.”
Anderson believes that the Mids will see more games like this going forward.
“Basketball is a game of runs, so we expect teams to come out and at some point to come at us,” he said. “It’s our job to withstand their runs and then make sure that we flip the momentum and start making some shots and bearing down on defense. This is what we can expect from the Patriot League night in and night out, so this is great preparation for that.”
Rebounding is key
Coach DeChellis wasn’t pleased with his team’s rebounding effort when they played zone defense, but he was happy with the final rebounding margin, with the Mids owning a 37-24 advantage.
Rebounding is fundamental to both teams’ success. Navy is now 7-1 on the year when out-rebounding their opponents. Morgan State, meanwhile, is 4-0 when they have a rebounding edge, and 0-4 when they don’t.
“I can’t tell you the last time I had a team with 24 rebounds in a game,” Bozeman said. “Normally we’re a great rebounding team.”
After some shaky performances at the start of the season, Navy appears to be seeing some consistency. The Mids have won six out of their last seven and three in a row. While the team’s 7-3 record is encouraging, Abdullah wants to keep looking forward.
“We approach every game like we’re 3-7,” he said. “Every game we press the restart button, so it really doesn’t matter what our record is.”
After a hectic schedule to open the year, DeChellis hopes that the routine of the season will help his team to maintain their run of steady performances.
“We got a little practice time last week, which is good. We’ll have a little practice time before the game on Wednesday. We get to practice a bit tomorrow.
“Things start to get a little spread out, where we can get into a little rhythm where we’re playing a couple of games per week, but we get practice time for those games.”
It’s a fact of life in the MEAC that a lot of the non-conference schedule will come on the road, and Morgan State is no exception. The Bears are in the middle of a run of eight consecutive road games. When asked if that wears on his team, Bozeman was quick to answer.
“No. I live ten minutes from here. We had fans here. I don’t really look at it that way. I really don’t. Since I’ve been a coach, I don’t make a difference between whether we’re on the road or at home. It’s two baskets and a ball. It doesn’t really matter.
“Sometimes it [playing at home] can give you more energy, but we had some people here. They’re sleeping in their own beds. It’s not like we’ve been on the road for eight games. I’m not that guy. Either we’re going to win the game, or we’re not. Either we’re going to play hard, or we’re not.”
Navy travels to Coppin State on Wednesday.