By MEL SUITER
LAKELAND, Fla.— With the spotlight turned on and taking the center of the stage, Saint Leo University basketball was on display for game number two of the Terrace Hotel Classic Basketball Tournament, Saturday evening, November 30, with hopes of ending the Thanksgiving break on a winning note.
Sharing the stage with the Lions was an angry team representing the Northeast 10 Conference, the University of New Haven. The host team of the Terrace Hotel Classic, Florida Southern College laid an old fashioned, behind the woodshed whooping with a 84-56, defeat on Friday night, November 29.
Saint Leo University defeated the Chargers 84-63, to finish the Terrace Hotel Basketball Classic with a 1-1 record and improving their overall record 6-2, as the Lions start the month of December.
Saint Leo University basketball coach Lance Randall expected his team to be ready to play hard, to be more physical and show some toughness.
After the players introduction at Streamline Arena located inside Jenkins Field House, the Lions got up from the chair, walked out onto the floor together, they took control of the court.
Saint Leo University was quicker on the floor. They took control of the tempo of the ball game away from the Chargers. Before the popcorn was heated, before the cold beverages could make contact on the crushed ice in the red Solo cup, the Lions were leading the Chargers by 10 points.
By the end of the first half, Lions’ senior guard Kyran McClure left the court with 29 points and left University of New Haven basketball coach Tim Hotaling reaching for and unwrapping his sour cherry bomb candy, shaking his head and rubbing eyes in disbelief.
Randall said after the loss against Valdosta State University, he kept wondering if his team can be tough under the boards and be ready to play.
Midway in the first half, Saint Leo University fell into a shooting slump until the sixth-man came off the bench for the Lions: junior guard Rusty Moore who ended the scoring slump.
Moore raised up into the air and made a sweet deposit with a bank shot. Suddenly, the Lions pressure defense found the focus again and moved up on the arch that forced the Charger’s offense to keep searching for any open lane and try to escape a Lion defender.
With the seconds ticking away in the first half, McClure decided that he could also use some bank help too, and as time expired in the first half. McClure raised off the floor, the ball left his hand, came off the glass and made that sweet sound of a swish from the net as the horn sounded.
McClure finished the night leading all scorers with 36 points. He shot 63 percent from the floor including going six-of 12 from behind the arch.
Saint Leo University found themselves looking at the same scenario against the University of New Haven as they did against Valdosta State University, a 16-point lead, the Lions had momentum but halftime interrupted the momentum. It was the same situation but there would be a different result.
The Lions defense came out in the second half and continued to play the way Randall expected. The Lions play under the boards and with a purpose-to win the game!
The defense did not give up on the pressure against the Chargers and the Lions did not give up on the boards, the Lions backcourt didn’t get pushed around they stayed in position to grab the rebounds. Saint Leo University finished the game with a 29-20 edge under the boards.
University of New Haven offense shot 44.9 percent for the game and was led in scoring by senior guard Elijah Bailey with 26 points including his six trips to the free throw line and he was able to make all six free throw attempts.
Randall was pleased with effort that Lions showed out on the court and he was pleased that his team was able to address the adversity of a shooting slump.
“We stayed after it stringing tops, McClure was unbelievable really both days,” Randall said after the game. “I thought out pace and our ball movement was better tonight. We didn’t get stagnant. We found some weak spots in their defense and took advantage.”
Saint Leo University found out as a team, if they just remain calm and keep their focus on the defense side of the court, the offense would be able to open up the Chargers’ defense.
The Lions finished the night shooting 57.7 percent from the floor, including 38 percent for three-points.
Saint Leo University will continue the season Wednesday night Dec 4 with a Sunshine State Conference game against Florida Southern College starting at 7:30 p.m.
The next opponent for the Lions, Florida Southern College went undefeated playing in the Terrace Hotel Basketball Classic, defeating No. 7 Valdosta State University 105-94, to end the festivities, Saturday night, November 30.
Saint Leo University celebrated the win for just a few hours before going back to work in preparation for the Moccasins.
When the curtain goes up and the spotlight is turned on inside the Streamline Sales Arena at the George W. Jenkins Field House, it will be the toughest test of the basketball season overall and in the Sunshine State Conference for the Lions.