SMITHFIELD, R.I. – The first two years that Bryant was eligible for the Northeast Conference Tournament (and ultimately, any postseason play) were good times. The Bulldogs fielded experienced teams and finished in the top four each of the past two seasons, earning a home game in the conference tournament each time. The Bears aren’t exactly a young team now, but they’re a lot less experienced, and Thursday’s 72-63 win over New Hampshire will give them some lessons for the future.
Bryant had about as good a first half as you could ask for on Thursday night, shooting 56.3 percent from the field, giving the ball away just twice and putting 50 points on the board for a 24-point lead. It looked like they would cruise, put a bunch of players in double figures and even their record. Then the second half came, and the Wildcats gradually cut into the lead before finally going up 61-60 with 6:21 left to play. That capped off a run of 17 unanswered points.
At that point, Dyami Starks took over. He went on a personal 8-0 run to put Bryant back ahead for good, and they pulled it out.
“When a team like that makes runs, it’s almost like you’re put so far back on the defensive, you’re waiting for the run to be done,” said the senior guard, who scored a game-high 19 points. “I said, no, counter their run with our run.”
For Starks, leading this team comes naturally, as he’s been a leader before this season. The Bulldogs also look to classmate Joe O’Shea in that capacity, while Shane McLaughlin has to assume some as the point guard. After turning the ball over five times against Connecticut in the opener, McLaughlin bounced back on Thursday night with nine points on 4-6 shooting, four assists and five rebounds.
The loss of Corey Maynard at the point left a question about that position. McLaughlin served well as a backup, but whether or not he could step into the starting role successfully was not a given. Thus far he’s not playing like he should lose that job, as he knows the game very well and is one of the team’s toughest players.
“Shane is real solid, he’s the prototypical point guard that settles everyone down,” said Starks. “He brings us to a calmness.”
In previous years, Bryant made a living with its offense. At times the Bulldogs could be good defensively, but they won with high-scoring games. That’s how they were built. Now, the Bulldogs are a little more of a defense-oriented team, though head coach Tim O’Shea says they will probably change defenses with some frequency. Of note is that they will press, and they did that for some of Thursday night before New Hampshire adjusted.
“We’re quicker this year,” noted Starks, who specifically pointed to freshman Hunter Ware, another point guard they are high on.
Even with the second-half onslaught, UNH still shot 39 percent from the field on the night. They made it interesting with second chances and minimizing turnovers while Bryant started to give the ball away some in the second half and went about seven minutes without a field goal at one point.
Of course, this team can score, too. It helps having Starks back, as he’s one of the best scorers on the east coast. He’s not just back, though – while he could always make shots, his body is better, as he’s stronger, quicker and overall more athletic. It’s the result of an extra focus in the weight room this off-season that wasn’t there before. Teams will have to guard him for drives to the basket.
The Bulldogs have one other significant contributor from last season back in the starting lineup in sophomore Dan Garvin. As a freshman, Garvin showed his potential at times and seemed to really get better before an illness slowed him during conference play. He looks better in all and should start to approach his potential with a year of college under his belt and being healthy.
From there, Bryant has a host of holdovers who will be in more signifcant roles or newcomers, so the non-conference schedule will have challenges and lessons learned like Thursday night. The good thing is that this time around, it came during a win.
Said O’Shea: “We’ll get a lot out of that second half in that it will make us think, ‘okay, what are the adjustments we have to make to get better?’ But it’s a win.”
Helping out is that much of the Northeast Conference looks to be down from a couple of very good years. A number of teams lost a lot of production and/or experience, much like the Bulldogs. So while the personnel losses might normally knock them back some, there is a mitigating factor that gives a reason to think they could contend this season. There is enough for them to contend, especially as young talent like Ware and Gus Riley along with redshirt freshman Bosko Kostur and Boston University transfer Zach Chionuma develop and emerge.
Before contending, though, Bryant needs to learn the lessons from Thursday night. They need to play better with a lead, as well as withstand runs better. While the non-conference schedule is very manageable, they still have to go on the road for five of the next six games, and they mix in a visit from Harvard and a trip to Pittsburgh during conference play. Not learning those lessons could still mean losses down the road that hurt the confidence.