When KSU head coach, Lewis Preston, was asked what he told his guys at halftime to keep them ahead in the ball game, he took a long pause and smiled.
“That’s a good question,” he chuckled.
Delbert Love and Markeith Cummings combined for 53 points and the Owls survived a gritty second half against the Mercer Bears to grab their first conference win of the season by a score of 83-75 at home on Saturday. “I just told them there were going to be runs. I just told them we needed to keep attacking,” Preston said. “We had more energy coming out in the second half.”
The Owls lost their previous three games despite leading each game at halftime. Against Mercer, the Owls were able to cling onto the early lead they built in the first half.
“We actually showed the game here from last year. I had it running in the locker room the entire time. It must have been the most energetic game we played all year, so for these guys to see themselves in that environment with that much energy, there is no excuse to not come out with that same kind of energy all the time,” Preston said.
The ploy worked. The Owls came out in the first half and made their first five attempts, all from beyond the arc, and never lost the lead en route to beating the Bears in their first meeting of the season. The Owls posted season-highs in points and field goal percentage.
“When you put 40 minutes together and you play with great energy and great effort and you hustle, you can impose your will,” Preston said. “Don’t get me wrong, some of the three’s that we knocked down early kind of helped set the tone for us.”
Love scored a career-high 32 points, and set the tone early for the Owls. The sophomore guard went 7-for-12 from the field, including 4-for-7 from beyond the three-point arc. “We ran offensive breakdowns everyday, and coach told us after watching film, they were going to give us looks. We ran hard and we cut hard. We made vertical cuts that allowed people to get open and we had good drives from Markeith and Myles that opened up shots for other people,” Love said.
Love’s play fueled his teammates, as his early baskets set the tempo and got the crowd into the game.
“He’s a competitor,” Preston said about his sophomore guard. “He’s done a great job of taking over more a leadership and a vocal role with this team and today was the byproduct of that.”
At the start of the second half, the Owls opened with a 9-0 run after entering the locker room with a 39-35 lead. Mercer battled back, as play between the two teams got intense. In a half that saw flagrant fouls called on both sides, a number of players foul out, and the Bear’s head coach Bob Hoffman ejected, the Owls were able to keep their composure and hang onto the win.
“I brought everybody in and told them to just keep playing hard, and that it didn’t matter what they did,” Cummings said.
Cummings, who became the leading scorer in KSU basketball history early in the season, dunked the ball off an alley-oop pass from Myles Hamilton in the first five minutes of the second half. The play sent the crowd into a crazed frenzy and sapped all the energy from the Mercer bench.
“I think the crowd helped us from the start,” Cummings said. “The freshmen have never seen the crowd like that and that gave us a boost. We just came out and played really hard for 40 minutes.”
Despite the size of Mercer, the Owls were able to outrebound the Bears, grabbing 31 boards, three more than their larger opponents. Cummings and forward Aaron Anderson combined for 11 rebounds. Freshman Nigel Pruitt came off the Owl’s bench with 5 rebounds. The Owls snapped a 12-game losing streak with the win against Mercer. KSU has played a tough schedule, with road games against Tennessee, Notre Dame, and Pittsburgh. Playing those quality opponents will benefit the Owls as they continue with conference play.
“Being able to adjust and do some different things on different sides of the floor. Being able to disrupt an opponent. All those things MattBoggs TheSentinel have helped us a great deal,” Preston said.
Kennesaw State will continue A-Sun Conference play on Thursday, Jan. 10, when they travel to Florida to take on Jacksonville at the Veterans Memorial Arena beginning at 7 p.m.