ASHLAND – Crisp passing. Sharp cuts. Eyes constantly surveying the floor.
Watching Randolph-Macon men’s basketball operate on Senior Day against a good Roanoke College team was an exercise of seeing a work of art develop from the ground up. That’s what it takes to earn a 71-51 win over a Maroon squad that, on any given day, could beat anyone in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference (ODAC).
But for Luke Neeley, Darryl Williams, Jon Nowell and Grayson Midulla, it was a mission to ensure their special day at Crenshaw Gymnasium ended with a victory, the seeds of which were planted in their first practice as freshmen.
“Four years of a lot of blood, sweat and tears, a lot of practice, and just being together,” Williams said. “This group, especially the seniors, have fought a lot of pain. Now, just realizing it coming together, it’s great we played well on Senior Day.”
The Yellow Jackets have been here before. The seniors have never advanced past the ODAC Championship quarterfinal round. They’ve played well early in February only to sputter and fall short of the finish line. Head Coach Josh Merkel sees a different element in this year’s team, and his veteran quartet leads the way.
“Our seniors are ready, and they play without fear,” Merkel added. “It’s because of their character, and their want to get better, trying to make better decisions.”
Sometimes, it’s Neeley taking two 3-point shots from the same spot on back-to-back possessions, draining both for an early 8-2 lead. Later, after missing a trey, Neeley races to the basket after a long offensive rebound, in position to accept a pass for an easy basket. It’s Midulla, who misses a shot, grabs the board, and finds Nowell underneath. Suddenly, it’s 32-17 late in the first half.
Neeley hit six 3-pointers while leading the Yellow Jackets (12-1, 20-2) with 20 points. Do-it-all sophomore point guard Buzz Anthony scored 16 points while grabbing five rebounds and dishing three assists.
Randolph-Macon built on its 18-point halftime lead, leading at one time by as many as 28.
But there’s work to be done. Inside force Josh Freund of Roanoke scored 23 points and grabbed 11 boards. The Maroons shot 45 percent from the floor. Randolph-Macon only made 5-of-9 free throws. The work is made easier, though, when, for the third time in their last five games, the defense holds the opposition – all ODAC opponents – to 51 points or less.
“Overall, we’ll take the effort from today,” Merkel noted.
And they’ll need more. Hampden-Sydney invades Crenshaw Gymnasium Wednesday at 7 p.m. and would love nothing more than to find a glimmer of hope in an otherwise disappointing season by knocking their archrivals off the top of the ODAC standings – Guilford lurks just behind.
The seniors, however, remember one other element about “The Game,” basketball edition.
“Our number one priority is defense, getting stops, and treating every game like it’s our last,” Williams explained. “The seniors have one more game in Crenshaw.”
Afterwards, it’s road trips to Eastern Mennonite and Randolph. Three victories, and the Yellow Jackets again head to Salem as the top seed. But this time, they’re determined to peak, not in February, but in March.
Rob Witham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.