Backup spurs Robert Morris past NEC leader Fairleigh Dickinson
Robert Morris coach Andy Toole quipped after his team's 24-point loss two days earlier that “the definition of insanity is doing something over and over and expecting a different result.”
On Saturday, facing Northeast Conference-leading Fairleigh Dickinson (8-9, 4-2) at home, the Colonials (4-15, 2-4) were on the wrong side of a 15-4 run with six minutes remaining in the half and trailed by 13. They appeared headed for another loss when something different happened.
It started with Conrad Stephens.
Stephens's usual view is from the bench — he had logged just nine minutes of playing time all season. But on Saturday he made himself at home on the floor and was a big reason the Colonials rallied for a 64-58 victory at Sewall Center.
The junior forward scored 10 of his 13 points in the second half to get the Colonials within striking distance, and RMU eventually tied the game on a Kavon Stewart steal off an inbounds pass midway through the half. Stephens also finished with six rebounds in 21 minutes, but his intangibles might have mattered more.
Stephens' play inspired excitement not only from the crowd but also his teammates.
“He was awesome,” Toole said. “I know he's going to play really hard, and he's going to be in the right spot, and he's going to give great effort. I think if he can come off the bench and give us some life and energy, it can help other guys realize that this is a fun thing to play hard and try your best.”
It didn't look good early. The Colonials struggled from the field in the first half, shooting 35.7 percent (10 of 28), including just 2 of 12 from 3-point range.
With FDU holding a lead and the momentum, Toole called timeout.
“I said, ‘Are we just going to shut it down and quit? What are we about?' ” Toole said. “They came out and made some great plays, got some stops, and we clawed our way back into the game. I thought that was a big key obviously. We took a punch and responded.”
A Matty McConnell steal spurred a series of FDU turnovers and missed shots that ended with a Stewart 3-pointer at the halftime buzzer. That left RMU, despite missing leading scorer Rodney Pryor with concussion-like symptoms, down 29-26 at halftime.
The Colonials shot 45.8 percent (11 of 24) in the second half and were 3 for 7 on 3-pointers.
Arguably none was bigger than one from Monessen native Elijah Minnie.
With a minute-and-a-half remaining and RMU nursing a one-point lead, Minnie fired a 3-pointer from near NBA range and connected, opening a two-possession lead.
“He asked me, ‘What am I bringing to the team?' ” said Minnie of a one-on-one meeting with Toole, who met with each player individually after Thursday's loss to Mount St. Mary's. “I wanted to come out and show my team that I can be a leader on this team.”
Minnie responded with a game-high 17 points, including 4 for 4 at the free-throw line. Stewart added a double-double for the Colonials with 12 points and 10 assists.
Devin Moore is a freelance writer.