Image by Dan Nelligan
In their third matchup of the season, there wasn’t much left to learn in terms of how Fordham or Davidson would try to gain the upper hand and play their way into the semifinals. For Davidson, the Wildcats would have to dominate from three point range, have Luka Brajkovic beat out Fordham’s big men, and prevent the Rams from turning the game into their patented brand of scrappy basketball. For Fordham, the Rams would have to lock down Davidson’s shooters, frustrate the Wildcats via turnovers and drawn fouls, and have Darius Quisenberry respond to any major Wildcats scoring runs. In their first meeting of the season, Quisenberry went off for a season high 36 points.
As both teams warmed up, it was clear that Fordham already had received a major blow to their game plan, as Darius Quisenberry was not dressed to play. Day to day for nearly two months since sustaining a knee injury in Olean, Quisenberry’s absence meant that Fordham would once again be doubling down on their two-forward rotation against the top-seed in the conference.
Early on against the Wildcats, this worked pretty well for Fordham, as Kyle Rose wrestled for the opening tip deflection and drove to the bucket to give Fordham the opening basket. Down low, while most expected the Chuba Ohams-Brajkovic assigbment to be the marquee matchup of the game, Abdou Tsimbila and Sam Mennenga did not disappoint. Early on, both forwards tried to capitalize on the attention drawn to both of their counterparts to grab rebounds and second chance buckets. Against each other, they were incredibly physical, with Mennenga using Tsimbila’s roughness against him to draw contact under the basket and get to the line.
While both teams defended hard, Davidson’s inclination to shoot the three had them up 8-2 pretty early, as guys like Hyunjung Lee connected from deep. As Davidson pressed on the perimeter, Fordham went through a good portion of their playbook before they could find anything that could produce some scoring. While the ol’ reliable of handing the ball off to Chuba, and having him drive hard into the hoop for contact worked at first, the Rams needed to find another consistent option. Early on, that option came via Rostyslav Novitskyi, their backup forward who has taken a major leap in his development during conference play. In the first half, Novitskyi looked more comfortable than ever in his shot selection, grabbing putbacks, drawing contact, and even hitting a deep two from the left wing after failing to find an open teammate.
With 13 points in the first half, Coach Neptune was impressed with Novitskyi’s performance, especially when taking into account how he has played through the mental toll induced by the invasion of his home country of Ukraine.
“[With] all he’s going through at home, I’m really proud of the way he played,” Neptune said. “If people [could] say prayers for him and his family, it’s a tough time that he’s going through, that would be greatly appreciated. I know he’d appreciate it.”
While Novitskyi’s contributions helped keep the game close at first, Fordham simply could not keep up with the onslaught of shots that Davidson was unleashing upon them. While three point shooting was sparse for Davidson at a solid 4-10, scoring was well spread, as 4 players scored at least 5 points before halftime. Foul trouble for Fordham was also detrimental to their performance in the half, as they put the Wildcats in the bonus with nearly 7 minutes remaining in the period. Heading into halftime, Fordham let up a 7-0 Davidson run to go down 40-24, shooting 9-32 from the field, and 0-12 from three.
When asked about how their gameplan going into the quarterfinals, Davidson guard Hyunjung Lee emphasized being able to turn Fordham’s physicality against them.
“We already played Fordham twice earlier this season,” Lee said. “and we knew that they’re going to be top-blocking all of our shooters, and then it’s a dirty game, [with a] low-shooting presentation and all the fights around the core. We just have such unselfish guys on our team. Anyone has the ability to take over whatever night. We just got to find a way.”
As the second half opened, Davidson continued to press. Sam Mennenga drove into the lane, knocking down Novitskyi to finish at the glass and go up 44-28. On defense, the Wildcats double teamed Ohams every time he got the ball, forcing the veteran center to kick the ball out unwillingly and force Fordham’s guards to take some rushed shots. Fordham would finish the game 4-28 from three point range.
Once again forcing the Rams into foul trouble, and preventing them from getting any looks at three, it was clear midway through the half that Davidson had Fordham’s number any way they tried to play. Regardless, the Rams continued to play hard until the end, as Antrell Charlton continued to run the floor and make the best plays he could. As Chuba Ohams checked out of the game for the final time, he received a loud ovation from the Fordham crowd that had traveled to DC.
In what could be his final game as a Fordham Ram, barring a CIT or CBI appearance, Ohams talked about what he wanted his legacy to be as “the Mayor of Fordham.”
“I want to be remembered as a great person,” Ohams said. “I fought through it all. Everybody knows my career has been a bunch of injuries and stuff like that, but I fought through, I stuck to it. I never have up.”
Reflecting on the season as a whole, Coach Neptune expressed immense pride in this team, as they won the more games than any other Fordham squad in six years. All season long, Coach Neptune talked about several major goals for this team, such as defending hard, winning at home, and staying strong through adversity.
“I think [our goal] was just play hard,” Neptune said. “Our guys, to their credit, just never quit. And up, down, I truly feel like they just played hard as often as they possibly could. If we can carry that on to next year, I think we’ll be ok.”
While Coach Neptune said that his team has not yet considered what their immediate and long term futures would be, a major positive heading into the offseason was the fact that so many contributors on this roster had at least another year of eligibility.
“I think our guys set a standard,” Neptune said. “I hope that whoever we bring in can fall in line with the standard that these guys have helped set this year.”