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RMU headed to NEC championship after topping Bryant

| Saturday, March 7, 2015, 3:32 p.m.

It looked as if Robert Morris was destined for another NEC Tournament collapse when guard Rodney Pryor limped toward the bench midway through the first half of the Colonials' semifinal matchup against Bryant on Saturday.

But soon after the Bulldogs surged ahead for the first time early in the second half, Pryor shrugged off an ailing right knee to help rally the Colonials to a 66-53 victory at the Sewall Center.

RMU, looking to advance to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010, will travel to face No. 1 seed St. Francis Brooklyn in the nationally televised final on Tuesday night.

Pryor scored only 12 points, but back-to-back 3-pointers kept the third-seeded Bulldogs (16-15) from gaining separation early in the second half. More importantly, Pryor energized No. 2 seed RMU, which improved to 18-14.

No one, though, played a more spirited game than guard Kavon Stewart. He finished with game highs of 19 points, eight assists and seven steals to propel the Colonials into the tournament championship game for the sixth time in the past seven years.

“I just wanted to be aggressive,” said Stewart, who was 6 of 12 from the field in logging a team-high 34 minutes. “It all started with the defensive effort. In the second half, I was screaming at coach (Andy) Toole, telling him it was time for us to take over the game.”

The Bulldogs appeared poised to take charge by putting together an 11-4 run for a 40-37 lead with 12:51 to go when the conference's leading scorer, Dyami Starks, knocked down a 3-pointer.

The Bulldogs gathered themselves early in the second half and pulled ahead for the first time as they strung together an 8-0 spurt to take a 37-35 lead. Guard Shane McLaughlin drove for a layup and hit a free throw to narrow the deficit to 35-32.

With the defense clamping down inside, both coaches turned to their long-range gunners. The Colonials and Bulldogs exchanged 3-point field goals during a heated seven-minute stretch in which the lead changed six times before the leg-weary Bulldogs lost their bite.

Starks, who had 19 points in 39 minutes, made back-to-back 3-pointers, and Joe O'Shea added a pair of free throws to give Bryant its 37-35 lead. Pryor hit a layup to tie it 37, but Starks countered with another trey to give Bryant its 40-37 advantage.

The Colonials regained the lead, 48-45, on a Stewart 3-pointer with 9:24 left. Starks scored his final points with 8:09 left to tie it at 48-48.

Then, Stewart put RMU in the lead for good, 51-48, with a layup and free throw at the 7:38 mark. Stewart ignited a 9-0 run that enabled RMU to ice its rubber match with Bryant.

“When they were hitting the 3s, it was about us staying aggressive and not being afraid of the moment,” Pryor said. “It was about stepping on their throats.”

It, too, was about wearing down Bryant. The Colonials pushed Starks far beyond the 3-point arc. And with the Bulldogs' starters putting in more than 30 minutes, they didn't have a big enough punch to counter down the stretch.

“There legs were a little shot in the second half,” said guard Lucky Jones, who scored 11 points off the bench. “Really, it was about Kavon stepping up when Rodney and I weren't shooting well.”

The Bulldogs couldn't stem the tide, partly because the top-ranked free-throw shooting team couldn't hit the front end of two 1-and-1 attempts in the waning minutes. Jones and Pryor followed Dan Garvin's misses with jumpers that put the Colonials up 59-48 with 4:03 remaining.

“The missed free throws were like turnovers,” Bryant coach Tim O'Shea said. “They killed our momentum, but you have to credit Robert Morris, who played well defensively.”

The Colonials finished the regular season as the best 3-point shooting team in the NEC. But with Pryor laboring with a right knee in a brace and Jones shadowed throughout, the Colonials shot just 25 percent (3 of 12) from beyond the arc — including a 1-for-6 effort by Jones and Pryor.

“It was good to see our guys stay together and stay with the plan after (Bryant) took the lead,” Toole said. “On our side, our guys didn't blink. They increased their intensity and sense of urgency.”

Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rpaulk@tribweb.comor via Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib.

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