Milwaukee, WI – Trailing by 17 points at halftime to a sharp-shooting Elon Phoenix team, the Milwaukee Panthers flipped the switch and scored on a put-back jump shot by Jeremy Johnson with one second left in the game to defeat the Phoenix 72-71 in a highly entertaining game in Milwaukee on Sunday afternoon. Johnson connected on his game-winning shot in the middle of the paint after the 6-3 sophomore collected a rebound from teammate’s Bryce Barnes’ missed jumper.
“We believe he (Barnes) can make that shot,” said Johnson. “I saw it come off a little short and I got the rebound and put it back in. Just another play and it happened to go in.”
There appeared to be little chance this game would come down to a last second shot as Elon led 46-29 at halftime and was playing like the preseason pick to finish second in the Colonial Athletic Association. The Phoenix ran great offense in both its half court sets and transition and moved the ball side-to-side and in-and-out while putting on a mini-clinic on good passing and shot selection. Elon shot 67 percent from the field in the first half including 73 percent from behind the arc in jumping out to what appeared to be a comfortable lead.
But Milwaukee Coach Pat Baldwin, a former Big Ten defensive player of the year in his playing career at Northwestern in the early 1990s, made a couple of adjustments to his team’s defense at the break. “They hit eight three-point shots in the first half, and that’s their MO,” said Baldwin. “We went small in the second half and switched one through five to try to take the three-point shot away from them. I was really happy with our guys defensively.”
The plan worked. Milwaukee limited Elon to 3-of -7 three point shooting in the second half after watching the Phoenix knock down eight of 12 shots from distance in the first half. With its three point shooting attack curtailed after intermission, Elon scored only 25 points in the second half after putting up 46 points in the first 20 minutes.
Going small for Milwaukee in the second half meant moving 6-7 power forward Bryce Nze to center and sitting 6-9 starting center Brett Prahl. Prahl entered the game averaging over ten points and a team-leading six rebounds per game. Not only did the smaller line-up energize the Panthers defense the way Baldwin hoped it would, it also got Panthers leading scorer Brock Stull, now playing up at the four from his normal small forward position, going on the offensive end.
Coming into the game with a 12.3 ppg scoring average, the 6-4 Stull labored through a tough first half making only two of seven shots from the field and misfiring on all four of his shots from distance. With fair athleticism, Stull struggles to consistently beat defenders off the dribble and lacks elevation to score over most bigs in the paint. But he’s knows how to use screens to free himself for catches inside and above the arc and understands angels to get a step on defenders off the bounce. He’s a grinder type who competes at a high level and keeps coming at the defense.
Stull rediscovered his shot in the second half to lead the Panthers’ comeback. He made half of his 12 field goal attempts after intermission including 4-of-7 shots from behind the arc. He finished with only one assist, but it was a big one when he drove to his right from the left wing, collapsed the defense and kicked out to Barnes on the right wing for a three-point shot that found the bottom of the net and cut the Elon lead to 67-60 with 6:29 to play. Stull’s 21 points led all scorers.
“Brock likes to get my blood boiling at times,” joked Baldwin. “He’ll pass up easy shots and then take 25 footers. He’s a maverick, a renegade with a free spirt, and I like that about him. There’s no moment too big for him.”
The Elon-Milwaukee game marked the final game of the first Black and Gold Shootout, a three-day affair that also included Florida International and Concordia-St. Paul, a D-II school from St. Paul, Minnesota. Elon defeated Florida International 95-87 in triple overtime on Friday night and then handled Concordia-St. Paul 84-62 on Saturday afternoon. The Phoenix appeared on their way to a three-game sweep of the tournament as they headed back onto the court to start the second half.
Elon is a veteran squad that returns all five starters from a team that posted an 18-14 record in 2016-17. It has a nice mix in power big Brian Dawkins, perimeter big Tyler Seibring, lead guard Dainan Swoope, defensive wing Dmitri Thompson and long range shooting two-guard Steven Santa Ana. Santa Ana is the player hoop fans may remember from last season when he got tangled up with Grayson Allen in a game against Duke and saw Allen swing his foot at him out of frustration.
The Phoenix had their offense clicking in the first half. Powerfully built at 6-8, Dawkins scores from all three levels and can put the ball on the deck to create for himself. A great nephew of former two-time NBA All-Star Leonard “Truck” Robinson, Dawkins connected on all three of his shots in the first half including one from behind the arc. He committed only one foul in 11 minutes of first half play, but foul trouble curtailed his playing time in the second half as he finished the game with four fouls.
Seibring is a stretchy 6-9 junior with a facial and physical resemblance to former Gonzaga star Kyle Wiltjer. Named to the All-CAA preseason first team, Seibring has a sweet stroke that he used to knock down both his three-point shots and score eight points in the first half. Making the Elon offense hum was the job of Swoope, a 6-0 junior guard with a high hoops IQ and a toughness about his game that he used last season to lead the Phoenix in steals. A left-hand dominant player, he gets where he wants with his dribble. Swoope led the Phoenix with 12 first-half points making 4-of-7 field goals including 2-of-3 shots from distance.
But unable to put Milwaukee away early in the second half, Elon saw its lead dwindle as the minutes ticked off the clock in the second half. In addition to Stull coming alive on the offensive end for Milwaukee, the Panthers got strong production from Nze, a crafty scorer in the paint with a knack for using the rim to evade shot blockers scoring at the basket. The Milwaukee area native also pulled down a game-high 12 rebounds. Nze contributed on the defensive end as well making a steal in the Elon front court and beating Phoenix defenders down court with the dribble to score on a dunk with 3.51 left to cut the Milwaukee deficit to 70-66.
Milwaukee’s point guard August Haas bounced back from a tough shooting night up to that point by knocking down a left corner three point shot with 56 seconds remaining to trim the Elon lead to 71-69. The Panthers forced the Phoenix into a shot clock violation on their next possession and Barnes further reduced the Elon lead to 71-70 by making the back end of two free throws with 12 seconds left.
After a time out, the Panthers extended their defense to full court. While the Phoenix were able to negotiate the first Milwaukee trap, they had trouble with a second trap that pressured Santa Ana into an cross court pass that sailed out of bounds in front of the Milwaukee bench with eight seconds left in the game. That gave Barnes enough time to launch a shot and Johnson enough time to clean up the miss and send the Panthers fans home happy. “We’re not a get-up-and-press type of team,” said Baldwin. “But we knew we had enough time where we didn’t have to foul right away and we wanted to get a quick trap. We trust JB (Barnes) to try to make a play, but he slipped taking that shot. JJ (Johnson) had the best rebound of any player in my short tenure here.”
College basketball can be a confounding game at times, and Milwaukee is proof of that. Going back to the beginning of the week, the Panthers traveled to Ames, Iowa on Tuesday and hung a resounding 74-56 defeat on Iowa State. Coming home to open the Black and Gold Shootout against Concordia-St. Paul on Friday night, the Panthers fell behind early and were never able to get back into the game in losing 69-55. Milwaukee rebounded to defeat Florida International 66-51 on Saturday before edging Elon on Sunday.
After four games and a 3-1 start, Baldwin said he was starting to get a feel for his team. “Our guys are showing a great amount of resiliency and patience with me because I’m extremely fiery and competitive. I’ve been on fiery teams and teams with a quiet confidence about them, and this group has a quiet confidence. The players are great friends off the court, and that kind of helps when they’re on the court and they need to come together like today.”
Baldwin felt comfortable enough with Johnson to needle him as Johnson was answering a question about his game-winning shot. “That’s my first game winner at this (collegiate) level, but I’ve made them before back in the day,” he said. As soon as Johnson let loose with his “back in the day” reference, Baldwin interrupted him by saying, “Jeremy, you’re only 20 years old.”
Milwaukee travels to Madison on November 24 to take on the Wisconsin Badgers in its next game. After serving as an assistant at Northwestern the past four seasons, Baldwin is well versed in Wisconsin’s style of play. “I have not had the time to watch Wisconsin all year, but I know they are similar to the the team we just played,” he said. “They have good players, they’re well coached and they’re disciplined.”
Elon returns to its North Carolina home to host Radford on November 22.
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