Bruins make playoff debut, end second season

The Bruins played their final game of the 2013-14 season Thursday, March 13, as they fell to the Carver College Cougars, 76-64.

The Bruins’ loss eliminated them from the NCCAA D1 South Regional Playoff Tournament and wrapped up the first winning season for the BJU men’s basketball program. The Bruins men finished the year with a complete record of 16-15, showing rapid improvement since last year’s inaugural record of 6-24.

The Cougars’ Jamil Saaka started off the game with a thunderous dunk just five seconds into the half. Moments later, after a Cougar steal, Saaka claimed an offensive rebound and threw down another forceful slam before claiming his first block of the night — all in the first minute.

“We knew they’d be athletic,” said senior Zach Mercado. “And so after those first two dunks, it’s not like we thought we had to come back down and dunk on them. It was not a matter of not matching our athleticism with theirs. It was just a matter of us running our stuff and doing what we know to do.”

Mercado, who has been a captain on the team for two years now, had a relatively quiet night on offense, finishing the game with nine points and nine rebounds in 37 minutes.

The first Bruins’ point came two-and-a-half minutes in with a Kyle Turner 3-pointer. Turner, a sophomore, had a career-high 31 points on Thursday, in addition to 12 rebounds. He has proved himself as a great outside shooter and is confident from behind the arch. Turner shot four of six from 3-point land and also went five of seven from the charity stripe. “My coaches and teammates trust me to knock down shots when I’m open,” Turner said. “That game especially, we needed an offensive boost, and my shot was feeling really good. I didn’t do anything special. My teammates just passed it to me when I was open.”

Almost six minutes in, the score was tied 8-8. Good defense by senior Jason McVey and the rest of the Bruins squad forced some poor shots from the Cougars, but the Bruins committed several turnovers to keep them from grabbing a lead. Over a span of about three minutes, the Cougars scored seven unanswered points to take a 15-8 lead. Although the Cougars slowly expanded their lead, the Bruins kept them in their sights. The Bruins, who battled back to within three at one point and fell to 13 at another, were within nine at halftime, 35-26.

“We adjusted our offensive attack to spread the floor and try to get the ball to the free throw line area for Kyle [Turner] or Ray [Holden] to drive and create their own shot or draw the corner defenders in and pass to the shooters,” Coach Neal Ring said. “We didn’t shoot a [single] free throw in the first half, so we also talked about taking the ball to the rim to draw fouls and getting to the free throw line.”

The second half proved to be an exciting one, as the Bruins, who were down by double digits several times, never gave up the fight. Just shy of four minutes into the second half, the Cougars had expanded their lead to 14, at 44-30. It was time for a BJU timeout. “We had to get better on the defensive end and stop giving up easy baskets and second opportunity baskets,” Coach Ring said. “We reiterated the need to get the ball to the high post and to attack the lane, trying to get to the rim and ultimately to the free throw line.”

The timeout was just what the Bruins needed, as they went on a 12-2 scoring run and brought themselves within four points, 46-42, with 13 minutes left on the clock. Over the next several minutes, both teams traded baskets and missed shots as the score remained within eight points. At one point, the Bruins came within 3, 53-50. But the Cougars never relinquished the lead and expanded it to double digits again late in the game.

As the final seconds ticked away and Jason McVey scored the last point of the season on a free-throw to bring the score to 76-64, the Bruins’ second season came to an end. “This year we improved enough to achieve our preseason goal of playing at or above .500,” Coach Ring said. “We were 9-4 at home and were two missed shots away in the PCC and CCC games from being 11-2 at home.  We won eight of our last 11 games of the season. These are all signs of improvement.”