Coming out of a brutal non-conference schedule that included LSU, Arizona State, West Virginia, Louisville, and Indiana, the Kennesaw State men’s basketball team opened up the conference slate at home with a 102-81 victory against Lipscomb on Saturday.
It was a near wire-to-wire win for the Owls, as they took a 4-2 lead fewer than two minutes into the game and never looked back.
“Obviously it’s very important to try to win these games at home,” said KSU coach Al Skinner. “It’s important that we establish something in the terms of the way we like to play. I think that for a good portion of the game we were able to do that. It was a good win for us, and hopefully it’s something that we can build on.”
The Owls built on the 4-2 lead quickly by sprinting out to an 18-point lead in just over 11 minutes. Despite numerous comeback bids from the Bisons, the KSU lead never reached fewer than eight points. Part of that was attributed to the team’s ability to beat Lipscomb’s full-court press late in the second half when the Bisons were making a run at the lead. Though a few turnovers were forced, the Owls were able to regroup and beat the press multiple times for easy baskets on the other end.
“We mishandled it a couple times, and that’s something we’ll have to learn from and we will get better at,” said Skinner about the full-court press from Lipscomb. “But the one thing that we did do is get some easy opportunities out of it, and that’s extremely important.”
From the opening tip-off, the Owls looked like the more polished and ready team compared to their counterpart. That can be credited to the rigorous schedule they endured through the first half of the season. With matchups including freshman-sensation Ben Simmons’ LSU Tigers, and top-25 teams’ Louisville and West Virginia, KSU could be considered one of the more battle-tested teams in the nation. In fact, the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), which is used by the NCAA selection committee, ranks the Owls’ non-conference schedule as the 13th hardest among the 351 teams in Division-I college basketball.
“I know our (non-conference) schedule was a very strong one,” said Skinner. “But we’ve also benefitted from it because our guys competed at a high level. We just weren’t able to sustain it. Now we’re getting close to playing 40 minutes. We had a lot of contributions today.”
The contributions came from all across the Owls’ roster with eight different players seeing considerable minutes and making an impact on the floor. With starting forward Jordan Jones and starting guard Kendrick Ray getting in foul trouble early, the KSU bench was called upon to deliver in the conference opener. They did just that. The Owls’ bench outscored Lipscomb’s 33-13 in the game. Freshman guard Kyle Clarke led the way with 14 points, three rebounds, three assists, and two steals in 29 minutes.
“We had some balanced scoring … five guys in double figures,” said Skinner. “That means that we’re sharing the ball. Guys are trying to help each other and execute the offense. That’s extremely important for us. Considering that Kendrick played such limited minutes, for other guys to step up indicates that we are playing within ourselves, sharing the ball, executing, getting good shots, and putting the ball in the basket.”
Nobody put the ball in the basket in the victory than sophomore guard Nick Masterson. Masterson scored a career-high 24 points on 10-14 shooting from the field, including four makes from beyond the arc. As senior guard Yonel Brown drove the ball relentlessly throughout the game and scored 21 points of his own, Masterson continued to slip behind the defense for open jumpers.
“It’s something that we’ve been looking for him to do all year long, and that’s what he’s capable of,” said Skinner of Masterson’s breakout performance. “If people are going to give him looks like that, we expect him to put it in the basket. He benefitted from the play of Kendrick Ray and Yonel Brown. They were so concerned about them, and he moved and got to open spots and made shots. Something he wasn’t giving us earlier in games, he did now, and that’s what allows you to score the amount of points we did.”
It was the second consecutive game of more than 100 points for the Owls after they scored a season-high 103 in their win against Reinhardt on Jan. 3. The offense was nearly unstoppable all day against the Bisons as they converted 55 percent of their field goals in the first half, 59 percent in the second half, and a staggering 57 percent for the game. They also hit 10 of their 15 tries from the three-point line.
“Shooting percentage is important, but shot selection is the most important thing,” said Skinner. “That’s really what I concentrate on. I feel like if you get good shots, you’ll put the ball in the basket. If we show some patience and share the ball, then we can have some success. The number of points doesn’t matter. The shooting percentage is what it is because we’re executing well and getting good shots and guys are able to make baskets.”
The men’s basketball team will continue conference play this week as they head south to take on Jacksonville on Thursday and North Florida on Saturday with both games starting at 7 p.m.