Ty Daubert (@TyDaubert)
GWYNEDD VALLEY — Jalen Vaughns came crashing down hard.
With just under three minutes to play, Neumann’s standout forward went up to the basket, and a Gwynedd Mercy foul sent him to the floor. The gym quieted as Vaughns remained there on his back until a trainer assisted him to the bench, where it appeared he would stay for the rest of the game.
Yet 30 seconds of game time later, he hustled to the scorer’s table and checked back in, helping the Knights finish a grind-it-out 67-52 win over the Griffins with a 19-point performance in both teams’ Atlantic East opener on Wednesday night at the Griffin Complex.
Jalen Vaughns (above) has been putting up huge numbers in his first season at Neumann University. (Photo: Ty Daubert/CoBL)
“I took a hard fall, but it was a physical game,” Vaughns said. “I was going up for a strong take and he kind of got me hard, but I’m alright. I was going to come back in regardless. It was too close of a game and it means too much for me to sit out, so I had to come back.”
Re-entering the contest was representative of Vaughns’ game. The 6-foot-7 forward relies on toughness, an old-school grit that has allowed him to break out as one of the top players in the conference. Pushing himself to return against Gwynedd was just another example of it being put into practice.
“It just lets everybody know that I’m tough,” he said. “It’s not going to be easy to get me out of the game. I’m always going to be ready to play, no matter what.”
With his physicality, Vaughns is a challenge for opposing teams. While he can handle the ball some and distribute, the perimeter is not where the Pocono Mountain West product feasts. Vaughns does his best on the inside, using his bulky frame and length to bang inside, convert tough finishes and grab boards on both ends. The sophomore is now averaging 22.5 points and 8.1 rebounds per game without having attempted a 3-pointer this season.
After being named Atlantic East Player of the Week by the conference last week, Vaughn earned additional recognition from his head coach following Wednesday’s game in the form of a glowing comparison.
“You know what it is? I played at Drexel. I compare him to Malik Rose,” Knights coach Jim Rullo said. “A poor man’s version of Malik Rose. He went and rebounded. And we as a coaching staff and we as a team have to recognize what we have, and we have to get him the ball inside.”
While Vaughns likely doesn’t have a 13-year NBA career ahead of him, the Rose comparison makes sense. Vaughns presents some of the same issues to opposing Division III teams that Rose did to D-I mid-majors in the ‘90s.
“He typically shoots 60-65% from the floor and gives us a double-double. He’s a problem at this level,” Rullo said.
Added Vaughns: “I think it’s trouble for a lot of guys, especially at this division where guys aren’t really too big and I’m able to dominate inside. I think it’s going to be a hard matchup for a lot of teams, and we embrace that.”
The Knights (9-5, 1-0) certainly embraced the inside game against Gwynedd Mercy as they pulled out the victory in a low-scoring affair. Shots did not fall for Neumann, which went 0-8 from 3-point range.
The Griffins (8-4, 0-1) hit a few jumpers near the start of the game, including a pair of 3-pointers from Aziz Parker and Matt O’Connor, as they took a 13-12 lead midway through the first half. Behind seven first-half points from TJ Lewis and two blocks and six points in the half from Vaughns, Neumann built some momentum to go ahead 22-17 into halftime.
Foul shooting hurt the Knights in the first half. The team went 6-13 from the free-throw line in the first half, which prevented them from building a bigger lead.
The score stayed close for most of the second half as Vaughns and Lewis took care of most of the work on offense. Vaughns grabbed four rebounds, well lower than his average, but Tony James picked up the slack. James had 12 boards to go with 15 points, one below Lewis’ mark of 16.
Neumann began to pull away more and more as the game neared its end. The Knights led 58-47 with 2:50 left when Vaughns was fouled and left the game. After a short break, he went back in to help guide Neumann all the way to the end.
Being there for his teammates is always important for Vaughns. He’s a “lead by example” kind of guy. He isn’t one to talk too much, but keeps working and hoping it rubs off on others. His fellow Knights see the effort he puts in and are thrilled to see it paying off for him on the court.
“They love it when I’m out there dominating on the inside and playing hard,” Vaughns said. “They hype me up, and that’s why I love my guys.”
Vaughns’ teammates could be crucial as the season goes on. Rullo knows opposing squads will put more focus and pressure on the forward in the future after seeing his production to this point. Other players may need to step up around him. Vaughns can also make improvements to his game, namely his outside shooting and foul shooting, to give the Knights a better chance at making a run at the Atlantic East title.
That being said, someone will have to prove they can slow Vaughns before Neumann should start worrying. Fourteen games in, and no one has been capable yet.
“Right now, I’m just going to dominate as much as I can inside,” Vaughns said, “until I see somebody who can stop me.”