Konner Metz (@konner_metz)
The West Chester Golden Rams are no strangers to the high pressure moments that come with late-game, back-and-forth basketball. Over half of their victories this season have come in single-digit contests, and they are 6-1 in games decided by five points or less.
Coach Damien Blair knows the importance of closing out close games, especially in tightly-contested PSAC matchups. So what’s been on the side of the Rams this season in particular?
“A little bit of luck,” Blair said, half-jokingly.
It was after the team’s seventh single-digit margin league victory on Wednesday night that Blair was able to reflect some on his team’s edge in the clutch moments. Once again, they proved their advantage in that department, besting Kutztown University,77-72, in the friendly confines of Hollinger Field House.
“I would say it’s confidence,” Blair said of the team’s upper hand. “And they believe in themselves, and to this point, they haven’t quit. They’ve gotten down in some big games and fought back.
“That happened in the Shepherd game [last week], that happened tonight. That’s the one thing that I see as being the one outlier. They just keep fighting and they believe in themselves.”
West Chester's Kyle McGee scored a career-high 28 point Wednesday against Kutztown. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
The Rams (15-6, 10-5 PSAC) sported an 11-point lead midway through the second half, but Kutztown (5-15, 5-10) went on a 12-0 run to take a surprising lead. Just when it looked like West Chester was in danger of a home upset, the Golden Rams struck back again, not phased in the slightest – namely junior guard Kyle McGee.
McGee had a career-high 28 points to go along with six rebounds and six assists. He poured in five straight points to put his team back in the lead, 67-66, before 6-8 sophomore forward Joshua Walker upped the intensity and got the home crowd jumping with a menacing rejection on Kutztown’s Josh Samec. McGee was guarding Samec, and saw Walker come in with the off-ball help defense.
“Being able to come down and get that block, and they just dropped their heads,” McGee said. “After they dropped their heads, I knew we kind of had them after that.”
It’s been gritty plays like those all year that have willed West Chester to a second-place spot in the PSAC’s East division, winning six of its last seven. Versus Shepherd last week, freshman Anthony Purnell Jr. grabbed an offensive rebound and set up Walker for a buzzer-beater – a baseline assist that his coach said he’s never seen anyone make.
And it’s a group devoid of a large senior presence; forward Eli Barrett, who has started all 21 games and averages 10.5 ppg, is the only senior receiving major playing time for the Rams.
While young, many of the core pieces of the team have all been with the program since at least last year, when West Chester went 5-7 in contests decided by five points or less.
McGee (15 ppg, 6.1 rpg, and 3.6 apg) pairs up with sophomores Robert Smith (15 ppg) and Elijah Allen (11.8 ppg) in the backcourt, the latter being the team’s best three-point shooter (34 percent). Barrett and Walker do the heavy lifting inside, with all of the starters but Walker (a transfer from D-1 Radford University) holdovers from last year’s team that fell in the PSAC quarters and failed to win close conference games at times.
“Last year, we lost a couple of those close games, and they were freshmen and sophomores,” Blair said. “And now those guys are a little bit more experienced and know what to expect.”
West Chester's Joshua Walker came up with a clutch block Wednesday against Kutztown. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
There’s been no lack of hurdles this year, as the Rams have had some games where they’ve struggled shooting-wise, particularly from deep. Such was the case against Kutztown, as the team went 4-of-25, the three starting guards shooting a combined 3-of-21 from beyond the arc. However, McGee found other ways to score the rock, nailing 11 of his 12 two-point shot attempts on an off night for Smith and Allen (a combined 7-of-26 from the field).
“I didn’t come into the game thinking about scoring, I kind of came into the game just doing whatever was needed to win,” McGee said. “I do a lot of different things for the team, so whatever’s needed I just try to do.”
Blair said he told McGee after the game that despite a 1-of-8 day from deep, he did everything else right, a mantra that the West Chester coach has been hammering to the entire group since game one, which was – no surprise – a two-point, overtime win over Lincoln University.
“When you start the season, you try to train the kids to do a lot of the little things in order to win games,” Blair said. “The thing that I preach a lot about is, there are going to be times when you miss shots, you have to find a way to win those games. The way you win those games is you defend, you play together, and make foul shots. And then you have to come up with winning plays.
“So whether it’s pinching when a defender’s driving, whether it’s pushing the ball ahead and trying to get an easy shot for your teammate. Or getting in the lane and making the extra pass, you got to do those things.”
When the shots start falling, Blair feels confident that the team’s margin can increase, something he knows will be important in road PSAC matchups. Two trips await the Rams, first to Mansfield (5-14, 4-11) on Saturday and then to the East’s first-place Shippensburg Raiders (13-7, 11-3) on Monday.
West Chester fell to Shippensburg by 15 in early January, and the rematch could very well come down to some late moments similar to those seen Wednesday night. The team’s main newcomer, Walker, has witnessed substantial strides in clutch matchups this year alone, and believes the team is building a stronger late-game identity game-by-game as important matchups loom and the regular season dwindles.
“Earlier [in the season] we probably would’ve just gave up [tonight],” Walker said. “But we just continued to fight, keep pushing. As long as we keep fighting, then we good. Just don’t give up.”
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