Appalachian State Head Coach Jim Fox charts the game by the four-minute sessions between media timeouts. There are 10 total in a regulation game but four in particular are most important – the two that begin and end each half. In short, start strong and finish strong.
Certainly, over the course of App State’s 26-game season to date the Mountaineers have played well in those prioritized sessions at times, but in too many Sun Belt games where Appalachian was in a position to claim a win they came out flat to start a second half. Eight times to this point, in fact.
In the weekend’s dual Alabama losses it happened in both games:
- Leading South Alabama 36-30 at the half, the Mountaineers surrendered a 15-3 run to begin the second half.
- App State trailed Troy just 33-32 going into the halftime locker room but stayed in there mentally as the game went on, as Troy opened the final half with a 14-4 advantage.
That’s a combined 29-7 to start the second half in the most recent losses, but it’s hardly been the first time this season.
- In the game at UT-Arlington, App State trailed by just four at the half but allowed an 11-5 run to start the second half.
- Hosting Little Rock, it was 31-31 at the half but the Trojans opened the final half on a 14-7 run.
- At Georgia Southern, Appalachian trailed the Eagles just 37-32 by halftime but Southern jumped out 11-4 to open the second half.
- Two days later at Georgia State, App is down seven after 20 minutes before allowing an 18-5 Panther run after halftime.
- After their best defensive half of the season App State led UT-Arlington 32-24 in the home rematch, but the Mavs exploded to a 19-11 advantage out of the locker room.
- Down five at the half to Little Rock on the road, Appalachian gave up a 20-10 start to the second half.
That’s eight games, all ending in losses, where App State’s average halftime deficit was just one point. In fact, they were tied or led in nearly half of those games. But, the Mountaineers were outscored by an average of 15-6 to start the second halves in those losses.
A youthful App State team has been searching for consistency all season, but this isn’t the kind they want.
So, What Went Down?
APP STATE OFFENSE
The game started off well enough, with Appalachian committed to working the ball inside. Griffin Kinney scored seven of App’s first 13 points, Ronshad Shabazz and Tyrell Johnson both hit three pointers, and the game was tied at 13-13.
Even when Troy sprung out to a nine-point lead, powered heavily by three App State turnovers, the Mountaineers bounced back with freshmen Kelvin Robinson (back from a month-long injury absence), Isaac Johnson, and Pat Good scoring seven of the final 14 points.
When Kinney scored a second-half opening basket in the post Appalachian led 34-33. But Troy started sending double and even triple teams Kinney’s way after that, and limited his opportunities for much of the second half.
Still, the rookies kept App close for a while, with Robinson and Isaac Johnson scoring nine of the Mountaineers’ next 16 points. And, the score stood at 52-50 Troy with 11:40 left to play in the game.
From that point on, Appalachian shot just 35% from the floor, including 2-9 from the three-point line, with four turnovers.
App State fell into Troy’s defensive game plan for much of the night by relying heavily on perimeter shooting, especially from the arc. In fact, the Mountaineers shot 51% from the floor inside the three-point line, but were just 8-30 behind it. Overall, 45% of Appalachian’s shot attempts came from the arc and, as a result of taking so many jumpers, the team also shot a season-low nine free throws in the game.
Ultimately, there were some missed offensive opportunities but the Mountaineer offense is buckling somewhat under the pressure of a seven-game Shabazz slump. To that point, Shabazz was averaging nearly 18 points per game, but since has averaged 12.4 on 32.7% FG shooting and just 8-43 from the three-point line.
Other teammates have stepped up to fill some of the void, but the team needs Shabazz’s production to finish strongly this season.
APP STATE DEFENSE
Appalachian’s first-half defense was effective in slowing Troy’s league-leading scoring offense. The Trojans were held nearly 20% under their 80-point conference scoring average in the first half, went just 3-11 from the three-point line, and star gunner Wesley Person was held scoreless.
In the second half, Troy started pounding the ball inside to leading scorer Jordon Varnado and remained committed to that for the rest of the game. The result was not a significantly better shooting performance but the Trojans did start a virtual parade to the free-throw line, led by Varnado.
He alone went 8-11 from the line and, overall, Troy was 14-22 in the second half alone. Appalachian did not have a single point from the line in the half, so that 14-point Troy advantage in a 10-point victory became obviously significant.
Troy also owned the glass on the night, outrebounding App 44-35.
It seems like we start every one of these out analyzing the incredibly productive and active output of Isaac Johnson, and this version will be different. He had eight points, seven rebounds, three steals, and a blocked shot, and those 40-minute adjusted numbers are 12 points and 10 rebounds. Pat Good had five points, including a nice buzzer-beater at the end of the first half.
With Troy utilizing a smaller lineup most of the night Craig Hinton’s minutes were limited, as was his production (three points in 15 minutes).
App State returns home for the final three regular-season games, before they head to the Sun Belt Tournament in early March. The Mountaineers have won their last two home games and start with winnable games against Louisiana-Monroe (1-13 in league play) and Louisiana-Lafayette (6-8).
At 3-10 in conference play Appalachian is playing for different goals at this point. First, they have a chance to build momentum at home for a potential run in the Sun Belt Tournament. With the Sun Belt’s format the Mountaineers would be matched up with Texas State in the opening round if the tournament began today. With three more wins that status can, and likely does, improve.
Next, closing the season strongly will carry much greater mojo into the offseason for a young team trying desperately to further build its persona. There’s talent here that has proven to be competitive in every single Sun Belt game they’ve played. But, believing in their own ability to win is still an opportunity, and is one that’s right in front of the team over the next two weeks.
This is not a roster that’s likely to experience great turnover during the offseason with only one senior. With that continuity can come advantages in experience and familiarity, but the final culture challenge Jim Fox faces is establishing a winning expectation for App State Basketball.
The next three games are a great opportunity to further establish that final and, frankly, most significant, step of winning.