Wildcat Weekly | Edition 6 | Cole Vulpis
Penn, ECU, Robert Morris, Charlotte, William and Mary, Northeastern, and Radford. All of these teams took a loss to Davidson as part of the Wildcats’ seven-game win streak. Davidson had a chance to bring holiday cheer to Wildcat fans and Auburn Tigers fans alike by adding one more win to their streak: #10 Alabama. The stage was set. Due to Alabama and Davidson losing their originally scheduled games, the two would meet Tuesday, December 21 as part of the C.M. Newton Classic at Legacy Arena in Birmingham, Alabama.
The game was over. The headlines poured in. “Davidson holds off No. 10 Alabama comeback, wins 79-78” (AP). “Brajkovic scores 22, Davidson beats No. 10 Alabama 79-78” (Washington Post). “POST GAME REPORT: Alabama drops its third game of the season in 79-78 loss to Davidson” (Yahoo News). Davidson men’s basketball reentered the national spotlight. And this time it wasn’t because an alum broke the NBA three-point record. Davidson beat #10 Alabama in Birmingham, their first top-10 victory since the 2008 NCAA Tournament, and their first regular season victory over a top 10 team since Feburary 11, 1970.
The national attention didn’t yield. Several analysts added Davidson to their bracket predictions for the NCAA Tournament. This morning, Andy Katz featured Davidson at #29 in his famous “Power 36.” ESPN Staff Writer Jeff Borzello also featured Davidson as the “Team of the Week” in his power rankings article. Most importantly, Davidson received 2 points in the AP Poll. These are their first votes in the AP Poll since October 21, 2019, which was the preseason poll for the 2019-2020 season. There is still a lot of basketball to play this season (knock on wood), so ‘Cats fans everywhere will look for the team to build on their performence against Alabama. This week is a great week to start.
Davidson vs. Alabama
Davidson got off to a great start with buckets on both of their opening possesions. After that, things took a turn for the worse. The ‘Cats went on a six-minute scoring drought. Luckily, the team was able to get some stops, but Alabama still had a 10-4 lead and appeared to be in control of the game. Then, the magic started. Hyunjung Lee drained a three assisted by Mike Jones. From there, the ‘Cats would go on a 19-2 run to go up 23-12. And they would have a 41-35 lead at halftime.
Alabama was unable to sucessfully adjust. With 16 minutes left, Davidson led 54-41. The Crimson Tide wouldn’t quit, though, and went on a 12-2 run to make it 56-53 with 11 and a half minutes left. Then, they knotted the score up at 64 five minutes later. It appeared Alabama may have the momentum, but Mike Jones turned the tide with a three assisted by rookie Des Watson. And, after Luka Brajkovic banked in a three from the top of the arc, Davidson was up 79-69 with two minutes left.
Brajkovic’s shot would end up being the most important shot of the game. Alabama tried to go on one more run. Jalen Shackleford knocked down a three and Keon Ellis backed into Lee to make an and-1 layup. The score was 79-75 and the Tide fans in Birmingham were as loud as ever.
With about a minute left, Alabama was forced to press, something Davidson has not dealt with much this season. And Foster Loyer, who had not committed a turnover all game, was trapped on the sideline. Forced to do something, he threw the ball in the air. Alabama caught it, passed, and scored on a slam dunk. 79-77. Half a minute left.
Davidson drained off some more time and called timeout. With 16.9 seconds left, Mike Jones inbounded the ball to Brajkovic. Brajkovic was again trapped on the sildelines. Alabama was able to force the ball out of Brajkovic’s hands, and it deflected off his legs and out of bounds.
Alabama now had plenty of time to tie it. Jahvon Quinerly got by Mike Jones. Brajkovic slid in to cover, but Jones didn’t want to take any chances. He reached around Quinerly to foul before he got his shot off. Would it pay off? Quinerly was about a 70% free-throw shooter this season and for his three-year career. The chances that he makes two free throws in a row is about as likely as correctly picking a coin toss. Sam Mennenga subbed in for Grant Huffman. First one went in. The fans in Legacy Arena and at home were on the edge of their seats. The second one rimmed out. And Mennega snagged the rebound! With four seconds left, Alabama had multiple chances to intercept an inbound because they had a couple of fouls to give. But Davidson kept the ball safe. 79-78, final score.
Four of Davidson’s players finished with double digits. Brajkovic led the way with 22, Jones followed with 21, then Lee with 17, and Loyer with 11. Brajkovic led in rebounds, with 7, and Loyer in assists, with a career-high 8. The team shot 53.4% from the field, 50% from deep, and 100% from the line. They were outrebounded by Alabama 39-27.
What an incredible game! For an Atlantic 10 conference team, receiving national attention is a huge deal, so it’s crazy to think this game wasn’t even supposed to happen. Alabama was supposed to play Colorado State and Davidson was supposed to play Loyola Chicago. And, by fate, this game happened and Davidson won. More than fate, it took a willingness from Alabama’s head coach, Nate Oats, for the game to happen. Whether fans like it or not, most people would classify Davidson as a high-end mid-major program. From a risk-reward standpoint, this is not the type of team power conference teams like Alabama want to play, especially on short notice. Bob McKillop summed it up nicely. He told AP, “A lot of teams at the high major level won’t play us, and Nate graciously pursued playing us. I want to say thanks to him for that.”
In Bob McKillop’s halftime interview, he summed up Davidson’s success by saying, “We’ve got pretty good shooters.” And that they do. Davidson is 2nd nationally in three-point percentage and 7th in effective field goal percentage. This certainly was one of the main factors to Davidson winning.
The people running the C.M Newton Classic named Luka Brajkovic the Player of the Game, and he would later go on to win the A10 Player of the Week. There’s no doubt that Brajkovic deserves it. He led the way in scoring and rebounding, and his bank three at the end of the game ended up being the difference. That said, Mike Jones deserves just as much praise. It was his first time in his career scoring over 20. While Brajkovic and Mennenga sealed the game with their clutch three and rebound, respectively, Jones was part of two major momentum killers for Alabama. He drew a defender off Lee for him to pass to Lee for a three when Alabama was up 10-4, and he made a three himself when the game was tied as 64-64. These both were extremly important plays. He also made crafty moves around the basket for two points at other important moments in the game. Oh, and did I mention that he was perfect from deep, perfect from the line, and 8 of 11 from the field? Jones had a tremoundous game and is having a tremondous season as a first-time starter.
Loyer broke his two-game streak of scoring over 20 points, but make no mistake, he, too, had a tremendous game. With 8 assists to one turnover, this is was the best “floor-general” performence of the season for Loyer. With each game, it looks better and better that Davidson picked up Loyer from Michigan State.
For yet another game, Lee had a phenomenal game without dominating the scoring for the ‘Cats. This is fantastic news for the ‘Cats and their floor this season. 50% from both the field and from three and 17 points total is exactly what you need out of Lee. The and-1 three early in the game was certainly a highlight, but Lee also made two tremoundous cross-court passes that set up Davidson three-balls. Every part of Lee’s game seems to have improved. And everything was already really good. Lee will look to keep it up in conference play.
McKillop played only three guys off the bench for the first time this season. And, like last week, the bench didn’t contribute much scoring-wise with only four total points. That said, this was a team win, and every single one of the eight players that touched the court was necessary for victory. One highlight off the bench was Grant Huffman chasing a loose ball across the court to save a possesion for Davidson. There were other great moments from the bench; Des Watson and Nelson Boachie-Yiadom each had a block, a steal, and two assists. And all three of them continued to serve their role as phenomenal defense substitutions off the bench.
There is no doubt that this will be the ‘Cats biggest win of the regular season. The team shot phenomenally and were able to close the game out. That said, the team isn’t going to shoot 50% from deep in every game, so it’s good that the late mistakes didn’t bite them too hard. It’s certainly not ideal that Davidson didn’t respond great to Alabama’s press at the end of the game, turning it over on two consecutive and important posssesions. In terms of dealing with the pressing and trapping, VCU is the ulimate test, and Davidson plays them on Sunday. Thus, it seems we’ll learn quickly if the team grows from this. Moreover, if the team isn’t shooting well, it will be tougher to swing momentum and stop runs from the opposing team. Whether or not Davidson can manage games against quality opponents on rough shooting nights will be something to watch going foward.
Davidson vs. Johnson and Wales
16 hours after the Alabama game, Davidson turned around to play Johnson and Wales, a Division III opponent. After the game was tied 3-3, Davidson wouldn’t look back and would go on to win 106-64.
Huffman made his first start in place of Loyer, who sat the game out. Everyone else got playing time and contributed in some major statistic. Junior David Kristensen led the way with 16, Lee added 12, and freshemen Styrmir Thrastarson and Chris Ford added 12 and 10, respectively. Ford actually posted a double-double as he led the team with 11 rebounds.
The team shot 57.3% from the field, 42.4% from deep, and 75% from the line. Davidson outrebounded Johnson and Wales 53-28.
I won’t dive into this game too much as to focus on the Alabama game. This game was certainly fun to watch, though. The team played as well as we’d expect if they were well rested, so doing this well on essentially no rest should not be understated. Kristensen played great, earning a career-high in points. This was the second time he scored in double figures, with the first coming against Southern Virginia, another Division III opponent, last year. Seeing Tharstarson score with fancy spin moves and Ford’s double-double are all exciting and encouraging things to see from the rookies. It’ll be no suprise if their roles increase as their careers continue.
A Look Ahead
It’s conference play time! After the win over Alabama, many would consider Davidson to have had the best nonconference performence out of any Atlantic 10 Conference team. They also lead the conference in the NET and KenPom rankings at 46 and 54, respectively. They’ll look to back it up. They open their conference play on Thursday with a 7 o’clock game at home against Duquesne. Then, they play at VCU on Sunday.
Duquense has struggled to win consistently, but they’re coming off a huge 22-point win against a quality UC Irvine team. From a Davidson perspective, you hope the team can get by the Dukes to be ready for the game against VCU.
This game against VCU will likely be the second most important regular season game for Davidson this season, next to the Alabama game. For starters, it’s the only Quad I game remaining for Davidson as of now. But this could change, and the games at Richmond and St. Bonaventure, among others, could end up mattering more for analytics and conference standings. The reason I still say this is because college basketball is all about momentum, both in the actual games, over the course of the season, and in the public eye. At the end of the day, a committee will decide Davidson’s tournament fate, and being in the conversation early is generally an important step toward being in the conversation come March. Riding off this Alabama win and winning at VCU would be momumental in the effort to cement Davidson as a team that deserves an at-large NCAA Tournament bid.
Thanks for reading. Stay tuned every Monday for another edition of the Wildcat Weekly! For more Davidson and Atlantic 10 coverage, follow me on Twitter @WildcatCole24.