Robert Morris men can’t finish job against St. Francis
LORETTO — Andy Toole implored his team to play with more heart. He stalked the sideline, clapping emphatically, as he often does, trying to ignite a spark, any hot spot that might fuel his players’ desire.
This was St. Francis (Pa.), the Northeast Conference favorite and RMU’s longest-running rival that the Colonials were up against.
The surging Red Flash already had beaten RMU once this season and were 8-2 at DeGol Arena before Saturday night’s game. And they were shooting for their seventh consecutive victory.
It all added up to just a bit more than the reeling Colonials could handle in a 72-69 loss, Robert Morris’ third setback in a row and fifth in the past six games.
“St. Francis plays at a championship level of basketball,” said Toole, Robert Morris’ ninth-year men’s basketball coach. “You make a mistake and they take advantage. There were times when they made a mistake and we made a mistake right back.
“But I’m proud of my team. I’m proud of the way they fought back. I’m proud of the plays they made down the stretch. They controlled almost everything they could control.”
Jamaal King scored 23 points, Mark Flagg added 12 points and Keith Braxton added 11 points and 12 rebounds for his 10th double-double of the season to lead surging St. Francis (14-11, 10-4), which opened up a two-game lead in the bunched-up NEC race.
But the Red Flash’s victory didn’t come easy.
“It was a great college basketball game between two teams that certainly played like it was a rivalry game tonight,” St. Francis coach Rob Krimmel said. “Andy had his kids prepared. We got up a little bit, and they battled back and put us in a position where we had to make some plays down the stretch.”
Robert Morris had several chances thwarted to take the lead in the waning seconds.
Jon Williams’ driving layup was blocked by Myles Thompson before Thompson drew a charge with 5.1 seconds left, leading to two free throws by Jamaal King that gave St. Francis a three-point lead.
Matty McConnell’s desperation 3-point shot at the buzzer was off the mark for Robert Morris, which was led by Koby Thomas’ 13 points and 13 rebounds in just 21 minutes in his first game since Dec. 15.
Thomas, the Northeast Conference Rookie of the Year last season, was kept out of the lineup for past 15 games but decided to insert the 6-foot-6 sophomore in the wake of Robert Morris’ current slump.
“We needed a spark,” Toole said. “We needed some energy. He’s been practicing better and itching to get back out there. We hadn’t been getting as much production from our forwards, and we thought it would be a good time to insert him.
“I thought he played with activity and was as engaged as we’ve seen him in a while. Hopefully, we can get everyone to raise their level.”
Facing a 13-point second-half deficit, Robert Morris (13-14, 8-6) got back into it with a barrage of 3-point shots that saw the Colonials connect on four from behind the arc in a span of 3 minutes, 27 seconds.
They managed to tie it on several occasions, the last at 69-69 on a layup by Josh Williams with 36 seconds left.
But Robert Morris wasn’t able to surge ahead as Andre Wolford’s 3-pointer and Flagg’s dunk pushed St. Francis back in front, 69-64, with 3:11 to go and the Red Flash held on.
McConnell also scored 13 points for Robert Morris. Charles Bain and Josh Williams added 10 apiece for the Colonials, who will return home for a pair of NEC games on Thursday against LIU-Brooklyn and on Saturday against St. Francis-Brooklyn.
“We made some blunders early, there’s no doubt,” Toole said. “We fueled them a couple of times by making bad decisions, potentially taking some quick shots. But I couldn’t be prouder of the fight. If we can build on that, who knows what we can do in these next couple of weeks.”
Luidgy Laporal, a 6-9, 240-pound senior from France, asserted his presence inside early for St. Francis, scoring the Red Flash’s first six points.
St. Francis kept the pedal down, using a 12-0 run to go in front, 18-5, capped by King’s second 3-point shot during the Red Flash rampage.
Robert Morris, which dropped a 77-68 decision at last-place Mt. St. Mary’s on Thursday, appeared sluggish early. The Colonials had remained on the road, arriving in Altoona from Emmitsburg, Md., early Friday morning.
The Colonials fought back to take a 23-22 lead on a three-point play by Yannis Mendy with 5:34 left in the first half.
By now, Toole was joined by his players, clapping. The fire had been lit.
But it was short-lived as St. Francis began another rampage and wound up outscoring the Colonials, 12-5, to take a 38-28 halftime lead.
Dave Mackall is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.