ST. THOMAS, U.S. Virgin Islands — With each game this season, Morgan State had moved closer to its first win.
From a 39-point blowout loss at Ohio State in the opener to Wednesday's three-point heartbreaker at home to Ohio, the Bears seemed close to victory as they headed here for the Paradise Jam.
The positive progression continued, for a little while, Friday night against La Salle at the University of the Virgin Islands' Sports and Fitness Center, but eventually so did Morgan State's season-long losing streak.
Leading by as many as six points in the first half after trailing early by eight, the Bears watched the Explorers finish the half on a 15-2 run en route to a 78-59 victory. Morgan State (0-5) will play Vanderbilt, which lost Friday to Providence, 67-60, in the semifinal of the losers' bracket tonight.
Helped by a 13-2 run midway through the first half, the Bears built a 23-17 lead on a short jumper by 7-foot-2, senior center Ian Chiles. But after taking advantage of Chiles' size inside, Morgan State started forcing jumpers from the perimeter or poor passes inside.
“I thought we made a run early in the first half without him. Clearly, if we have him in there and he's catching the ball and scoring, he's effective for us,” Morgan State coach Todd Bozeman said. “The trouble comes sometimes if we focus on it, then we stand around.”
After scoring six points in nearly three minutes, Chiles barely saw the ball the rest of the half and hardly at all in the second half. He scored eight of his 14 points in the first half, and had his last four after La Salle had taken control.
La Salle, which will play Providence in the semifinal opposite Maryland-Northern Iowa on Sunday, found openings in Morgan's zone defense and turned Bears turnovers into easy points.
“I thought we slowed them up with the zone. They weren't making shots in the first half, but in the second half, they made adjustments by moving a guy into the middle, and threw our guards off a little bit,” Bozeman said.
LaSalle's three-guard lineup proved too elusive. Senior guard Tyrone Garland led four scorers in double figures with 25 points.
Leading 32-25 at halftime, the Explorers allowed the Bears to get no closer than five in the second half before steadily pulling away.
With its winless record, Morgan State is in familiar territory. During the 2011-12 season, the Bears lost their first seven games and finished 9-20 overall — the worst record in Todd Bozeman's six full years at Morgan State.
Bozeman sees some positives this time.
“It's tough, because you play the [guaranteed-]money games because you've got to make money,” Bozeman said. “You try not to put so much pressure on yourself and get the games you can win. It's about trying to stay positive and look for positives and try to grow. If you're playing your best basketball at the end, all this will be forgotten.”