A hole too deep
Mavs can't overcome big first-half deficit
Metro State leaves no doubt it’s a national contender in NCAA Division II men’s basketball.
Colorado Mesa left an overflowing Brownson Arena on Friday night wondering what could have been.
“That’s a legit national championship contending team, and that’s what’s frustrating,” CMU coach Jim Heaps said after the Mavericks’ 64-52 loss to the top-ranked Roadrunners. “Guys, we are there; we’ve got to play better in the first half. We cannot keep digging holes.”
The Mavericks dug themselves into a 16-point hole in the first half, committing nine turnovers in the half-court offense, then settled down in the second half and took the lead on the Roadrunners.
In the end, though, CMU didn’t have enough to upset Metro in front of 2,011 fans who screamed themselves out in the second half.
“We can’t turn it over. You turn it over against Metro, as we’ve known for years, they convert so well,” Heaps said. “They’re so fast in the open court. We turned it over, and they’re getting layups. We’re not getting shots up, and they’re getting layups.”
It wasn’t Metro’s full-court press that hurt the Mavericks, it was getting sped up in the half-court offense.
Passes the Mavericks have been making, especially the past five games, were picked off by the Roadrunners. The easy shots wouldn’t fall, especially layups. Mesa missed nine layups in the first half.
“If we make 50 percent of the layups we took tonight, we win the ballgame,” senior forward Jeff Hart said. “It was really bad. It just wasn’t falling for us, one of those nights.”
Those turnovers and layups were converted on the other end by Metro (16-0, 12-0 RMAC), which shot 46 percent in the first half and 43 percent overall.
“They did a pretty good job of breaking our press tonight,” Metro coach Derrick Clark said of the Mavericks (12-4, 9-3). “We didn’t have a lot of traps and turnovers, which we normally do.
“We talked about getting back and getting our defense set out of the press. The press was effective in that they never got comfortable bringing it down and getting into their offense.”
The Mavericks shot only 26.8 percent from the field in the first half, missing 20 of 28 shots.
Metro led by 16 until Mike Melillo drained a 3-pointer just before halftime.
“The 3 at halftime was big,” Clark said. “They built on that. What did they do to open the second half? Hit a three.”
Hart hit the 3 to open the second half, starting the Mavericks on an 11-4 run that cut Metro’s lead to 38-35 when Clay Kame cut through the lane and took a pass from Colton Burgon for a layup with 14:35 to play.
That got the crowd going, especially after Burgon blocked a shot, grabbed the rebound, and Kevin Screen hit a jumper in transition.
With 11:50 to go, Landon Vermeer’s 3-pointer from the top of the key tied it at 42-42, and the crowd noise was deafening.
Back-to-back 3s by Daniel Estes and Melillo, who finished with 18 points and 12 rebounds, gave the Mavericks their first lead since 2-0, 48-45 with 8:43 remaining.
“Had we not dug that hole, it could have been a different story in the first half,” Hart said. “We’re going to go on runs, we’re that kind of team this year. We’re a second-half team, but in this instance, it was just too big a hole.”
And Metro’s experience allowed the Roadrunners to stay calm in the frenzied second half.
“I think our experience showed,” Clark said. “They roped us in, and we held our composure and made some plays.
“We’ve been in big games with this unit. We have nine guys back off that Elite 8 team. I tend to let them play through adversity and not burn a timeout, because I trust them.”
Demetrius Miller, who hit big shot after big shot, finishing with 24 points, tied the game right after the Roadrunners left Melillo wide open on the wing, burying a 3 to tie it at 48-48.
Brandon Jefferson hit a 3, then came up with a steal and a layup for a 55-50 lead, taking the air out of the gym.
Heaps pointed to the Mavs’ first-half struggles at home as something they have to remedy.
“I told them, ‘When you play together, you’re a heck of a basketball team,’ ” he said. “‘When you keep running our stuff, keep playing like we play, you’re a good basketball game. As soon as we get out of that, we’re not.’”
And, Hart said, the second-half rally wasn’t enough to make the Mavs feel good about the game.
“You can’t take any moral victories from that game. We lost,” he said. “A loss is a loss. We could have won. We were tied in the second half.
“I think in all of our minds we think we should have won, but they played better than us tonight.”