Tavaras Hardy compared his Loyola Maryland men’s basketball team’s game against American with Game 7 of an NBA playoff series. Not the Finals, but nearly as important.
In need of a victory to keep alive their hopes for a berth in the Patriot League tournament, the Greyhounds relied on an overwhelming second half to defeat visiting American, 60-49, on Wednesday night at Reitz Arena in Baltimore.
With the win, Loyola improved to 4-8 overall and in the league and 1-3 in the South Division. More importantly, the team now has a chance to overtake the Eagles for second place in the South and earn one of the top six spots in the conference tournament.
“If we lost this, we would have finished in the bottom of our division, and then we’re worried about what happens with the at-large bid,” said Hardy, who is in his third year coaching the Greyhounds. “It was super critical. … Our guys were focused.”
The players also understood the significance of Wednesday’s outcome.
“It was really big,” senior point guard Isaiah Hart said. “We knew coming into this game that we needed to win it. The season was on the line. So we had to do everything we could to get the dub.”
The two teams were pretty much even throughout the first half, and the score was deadlocked at 27 at halftime. But Loyola opened the second half with a 14-2 run over a 6:14 span and never looked back en route to a 33-22 second half.
After shooting just 29.4% (10-for-34) in the first 20 minutes, the offense converted 50% (13-for-26) in the second half.
Hart said the coaches emphasized to the players being patient enough to run their offense and swing the ball around until they could find gaps in the Eagles defense to exploit.
“We have a saying, ‘Chop the tree,’” Hart said. “So what that means is one play, one possession at a time. There’s no such thing as an eight-point play or a five-point play. We have to do it one possession at a time. So that was our motto coming into the half.”
Sophomore power forward Santi Aldama said the offense didn’t make any drastic changes to its strategy in the second half.
“I think we were doing pretty much the same stuff,” he said. “But the offense was flowing great, and we were getting great stops. So I think it was just a matter of time that we were going to get our points and beat them.”
The offensive success had a lot to do with Hart and Aldama. Hart scored 12 of his season-high 20 points in the second half and added three assists in his final game at home on Senior Day. Hart was especially effective at driving inside the perimeter defense and pulling up for mid-range jumpers — a tactic that he credited to the coaching staff’s scouting report.
“They told us that their bigs like to drop,” he said. “So I knew the pull-up would be there. It’s just being aggressive and my teammates helping me out a ton.”
Hardy pointed out that Hart is still getting his legs after missing about two months of practices and games because of a non-coronavirus-related illness.
“Isaiah, it’s been a challenging year for him,” Hardy said. “He was out for so long, and now he’s trying to work himself back into his game. He’s mature enough to lead us in these situations, and we needed him big-time.”
Aldama collected eight of his 13 points and eight of his 10 rebounds in the first half. In addition to registering his seventh double double in his past nine games, he chipped in three blocks, two assists and two steals.
“I just work a lot on my game,” he said. “I’m working on my rebounds, too. I just want to get as many as I can so that I can get us some extra possessions.”
Hardy said Aldama played at less than 100%.
“He had a couple days in practice where he wasn’t feeling well, but I was just happy that he was able to muscle through with another double-double for us,” Hardy said.
Loyola’s defense was stellar throughout the game. American finished the game shooting 28.3% (15-for-53), which marked the program’s lowest success rate since Nov. 9, 2012, when that squad was limited to 23.7% by Minnesota.
Senior guard Jamir Harris was the only player for the Eagles (2-5 overall, in the Patriot League and in the PL South) to score double digits with 18 points.
Wednesday’s victory sets up a pivotal weekend against Navy (13-2 overall, 10-1 in the Patriot League and 5-0 in the PL South). If the Greyhounds can earn a split on either Saturday or Sunday against the Midshipmen, they will overtake American for second place in the South Division and secure a berth in the conference tournament.
As thrilling as Wednesday’s win was, Aldama cautioned against getting complacent before the upcoming games.
“We cannot get super excited about the win,” he said. “Of course it’s a big win. But this is our standard. We just have to keep the momentum and keep going.”