HAMPTON -- Hampton University coach Ed Joyner Jr.’s message never wavered, even as he watched his team miss shots and absorb body blows from Maryland Eastern Shore: Keep pushing, keep fighting, do not give in.
The Pirates heeded and came from behind for a 71-65 win Monday at the HU Convocation Center, setting up a contenders’ showdown against rival Norfolk State on Saturday.
“It was ugly,” Joyner said. “But as I kept telling the team at halftime and in the second half: Sometimes you have nights like this; good teams grind these kind of games out and try to find a way to win it. We found a way to win it.”
The Pirates (13-11, 8-3 MEAC) won for the fifth time in six games and turned back a UMES team that’s now lost 32 consecutive road games, dating back to a Nov. 26, 2010 win at Navy.
“It shows the character, the leadership,” HU forward Du’Vaughn Maxwell said. “It shows how strong the coaches believe in us and how much we believe in ourselves. Every night’s not going to be a good night. We’re not going to open up every game like William and Mary or every game like Howard. That’s why we have to stick together.”
Maxwell filled the box score with a team-high 17 points, 14 rebounds, five blocks, three assists and a level of energy necessary to overcome a spotty start and inspired UMES effort.
The Pirates essentially reversed play from Saturday’s win versus Howard, when they dictated pace, defended fiercely and built a 21-point halftime lead on the way to a 63-47 win.
On Monday, HU erased an 11-point deficit in the second half with spirited defense, aggressive offense and a helping hand from UMES (3-18, 1-8 MEAC).
Guard KyRee Jones (27 points) carried the Hawks to a 43-32 lead with 15:26 remaining in a game in which everything came up aces. UMES hit 21 of its first 24 free throws, while Hampton was a dismal 4-for-17 from the foul line at one point and missed 14 of its first 16 attempts from 3-point range.
But Hampton finally gained traction with a methodical 17-3 run that turned a 51-44 deficit into a 61-54 lead. The Pirates hit seven of their last 10 free throw attempts, while UMES made just four of its last 10 free throws.
At the 12-minute mark, as Hampton drew within a couple of possessions, UMES began to hold the ball on offense and try to spread the floor, finally attacking late in the shot clock. The Hawks seemed to lose offensive rhythm for a span of eight or nine minutes as HU tightened defensively.
“I told the team,” Joyner said, “I felt that they were not trying to win it, they were trying not to lose it. So if we keep playing, you go try to win it. I think they believed they could and they did.”
HU limited the Hawks to six field goals and 26-percent shooting in the second half.
Included in the Pirates’ decisive run was a 10-0 spurt, highlighted by Ramon Mercado’s two 3-pointers, from nearly the identical spot on the left wing. The first tied the game at 54. The second, after an Emanuel Okoroba free throw and two missed free throws from UMES’ Troy Snyder, gave the Pirates a 58-54 lead.
“Huge,” Maxwell said. “We needed some energy from somewhere, not just intensity, but somebody had to make a play – whoever had the ball just had to make a play.”
“Ramon has been outstanding these last six or seven ball games,” Joyner said. “If he can stay at the level he is right now, we feel like we have a chance. His gift is his curse: He don’t remember the last make and he don’t remember the last miss. He’s just on to the next play and he lives for these type of moments. Tonight was tailor-made for him.”
UMES attempted to fight back. Hakeem Baxter (16 points) scored the Hawks’ last 10 points and hit back-to-back 3-pointers that made it a one-possession game. But Dwight Meikle’s dunk and Deron Powers’ driving layup – his only basket of the game – gave HU the winning cushion.
Joyner couldn’t explain the Pirates’ slow start, but knows that these types of games occur during long seasons.
“The last three or four games for us have been real emotional,” he said. “Some of it could have been looking forward to Norfolk State. This could have been a classic type of trap game. I don’t know. The good part about it is they were able to find a way within themselves to fight for it to get it at the end.”