Sputtering and Winning: Billy Clyde's boys certainly did not author a work of art with their 66-54 victory over Stephen F. Austin. The Red Raiders grabbed an early 10-point lead and kept the Lumberjacks at arm's length throughout the game, but never delivered the kill shot. Tech pushed its lead to 18 points with 17 minutes to go, but the visitors narrowed the lead to 10 with ample time left to still complete the comeback. Fortunately, the Red Raiders hit their free throws when it counted, and converted a few crucial buckets down the stretch. Had they not, this game would have gotten too hot for comfort.
The key takeaway from the win is that a very young and inexperienced team under a new coach managed to win by a dozen when they didn't have their best stuff. Most Tech teams of recent vintage were incapable of beating anybody when they weren't on the top of their game.
Bedrock: The key to Tech's victory was clearly the defense. On an afternoon when the offense broke down too often, and the defensive rebounding wasn't what it should be, the defense was the constant. The Red Raiders played with effort on defense from the opening tap to the final buzzer and reaped the rewards. Tech held SFA to 54 points, 36 percent shooting from the field, 21 percent from three-point country, and forced 15 turnovers.
It's a basketball cliché, but defense will keep a team in any game it plays. Sometimes the shots will not fall, but if the defense is a constant, the games will always be within reach, and you'll win a few you otherwise wouldn't. So far, Tech's defense has been a constant, and it's gotten better with each game. That is a real comfort.
Helpside: The biggest improvement in Tech's defense over its effort against North Texas was helpside on penetration. Now the Lumberjacks didn't have a Chris Jones, but when their guards were able to penetrate, the Red Raiders did a much better job of helping out and shutting down driving lanes. On-the-ball pressure from Ty Nurse and Bean Willis was also quite good.
Offensive Struggles: They say that pressure teams don't like to be pressured, and that looks to be the case with the Red Raiders. When the Lumberjacks jumped into full-court zone pressure, and a mix of half-court zone and man, the Red Raiders got flustered, played too fast, and committed boucoup turnovers. Bean Willis, who was exceptional for the first three quarters of the game, came apart conspicuously when the pressure was applied. The turnovers allowed SFA to make a little run; a better team would have completed the comeback.
Lew Had Better Pick It Up: Senior center Robert Lewandowski had a miserable game. He picked up two fouls very early and eventually fouled out having played only 11 minutes, scoring no points and grabbing only one rebound. And truthfully, the Red Raiders looked better with Lewandowski on the bench and Jordan Tolbert on the court.
Tolbert, who I previously compared to Wes Unseld, but might better be thought of as an angry Darvin Ham, was five of five from the floor, pulled down five rebounds, and scored 12 points in 19 minutes of play.
As the competition improves, the Red Raiders will need Lewandowski's big body on the court, but if Tolbert continues to come on, Lewandowski may be reduced to spot minutes.