Men’s Basketball: A Royal Flush

By Mike Barber, Daily News-Record

Fans hoping to see Eastern Mennonite University [men’s basketball team] hang with the No. 1 basketball team in Division III didn’t get that at all Wednesday. But they sure didn’t leave jam-packed Yoder Arena disappointed.

Todd Phillips had 26 points and 12 rebounds – one of three players to crack the 20-point barrier – and the Royals forced 22 turnovers as they shockingly routed top-ranked Randolph-Macon 90-67 in front of 1,564 jubilant fans.

"I’m going to tell you the truth. They’re good, but we’re better," EMU junior guard George Johnson said. "And it all started on the defensive end."

Johnson scored 25 points and D.J. Hinson added 22 as No. 18 EMU (12-1 overall, 6-0 in the conference) took sole possession of first place in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference. It has now beaten two of the ODAC’s three other Top 25 teams, having also won at No. 8 Virginia Wesleyan on Nov. 28.

Eastern Mennonite has another game against Wesleyan, in Harrisonburg, on Feb. 6, before traveling to No. 6 Guilford on Feb. 10.

On Wednesday, it used its swarming, turnover-inducing defense to force a high-octane, running game on the Yellow Jackets (13-1, 4-1), who were more than happy early on to join in the peddle-to-the-metal racing.

"We want to get up and down the floor," R-MC coach Nathan Jones said. "We’re not scared to get up and down with anybody. The problem, I thought, was you want to go up and down but you don’t want to give up easy baskets in transition. And we did that."

That, Phillips said, is exactly what EMU planned on.

"At first it felt like they were trying to run with us, or outrun us," the former Waynesboro High School star said. "But teams that try that, they just play into our hands. We like that."

Phillips scored five points in the final 52 seconds of the first half to give EMU a 48-42 lead and a little momentum in what had been an otherwise dead-even, shot-for-shot game.

But in the second half, the Royals quickly turned the battle into a blowout.

"We kept running and their legs were gone," guard Austin Twine, the team’s only senior, said. "They’re a good team, but we wanted to test how much they could run with us. They got tired near the end."

EMU opened the second half with a 12-3 run and went up 60-45 with 17 minutes to go. The run started when Phillips slipped baseline, took a pass and threw down a thunderous two-handed dunk just 34 seconds into the period – one of many crowd-riveting jams he turned in Wednesday.

From there, the Royals just poured it on, with Hinson, Johnson and Phillips leading the charge as the league’s top offense manhandled the conference’s No. 1 defense. EMU extended its lead to 20 points with 13 minutes left in the game and never was threatened.

The crowd, packed in so tight fans ended up standing on the second-floor indoor track that runs around the arena, enthusiastically cheered each basket, rebound and steal.

A day earlier, during a break at practice, Phillips casually told a reporter he expected the Royals to win "by double digits." Later, he told a local television station EMU would win by 12 points.

"I believed double digits," Phillips said. "I was being modest saying 12. I thought 20."

Defensively, the Royals absolutely suffocated Randolph-Macon after intermission, forcing 12 turnovers, outrebounding the Yellow Jackets 27-21 and holding them to just 26.9 percent from the floor.

For the Yellow Jackets, who had won 13 straight games in ascending to the top spot in the poll, Wednesday’s defeat left at least one player hankering for a rematch.

"I’d be happy to play them tomorrow," said junior forward Danny Jones, who led R-MC with 21 points, 16 of which came in the first half. "I’d be more than happy to play them tomorrow. We made mental mistakes tonight and they executed. I’d be happy to play them tomorrow."

That won’t happen. In fact, the teams won’t meet again in the regular season because of the ODAC’s unbalanced schedule. But they could face each other next month in the conference tournament, where EMU hasn’t won a game since 1983.

Wednesday’s emphatic win solidified the Royals’ new status as a legitimate contender for the league title.

With 1:17 to go, EMU emptied its bench, pulling Austin out last. The senior walked to the sideline, stopping to get a hug from seventh-year coach Kirby Dean.

"It meant a lot," Twine said of Dean’s substitution gesture. "Being the only senior, and the only one to stick it out, to see the crowd and how happy they were, it was just a win for the school and this community."

And it’s a win that heightened expectations for more victories this year.

"[Even] before we beat them, I wanted the ODAC title," Johnson said. "This just shows you we can do it. If they’re supposed to be No. 1 and we did that to them, we can do it."