Bearcats edge Birmingham-Southern in heated home-opener

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Season openers relieve months of pent-up anticipation and spark excitement for the future. When it comes to drawing enthusiasm from its fans, Baruch College’s men’s basketball team is second to none. It kicked off its 2016-17 campaign against Birmingham-Southern College, a private liberal arts college with just over 1,300 enrolled undergraduates. Its team, the Panthers, played against the Bearcats at Baruch’s Athletic Recreation Center. Bearcats fans filled the stands, with students erupting in chants for the home team.

The opening minutes resembled a 3-point shootout with the Bearcats’ first five attempts coming from beyond the arc. The Panthers implemented a full-court press at the tip, but the Bearcats easily broke through their defense.

After the Bearcats’ forward George Smyth received his second foul, coach John Alesi swapped Smyth with Allen Villar who immediately enforced his presence. The 6-foot-7-inch center rebounded a missed 3-pointer and dumped it in for a quick put-back. He followed it up with a block on the Panthers’ Aidan Waldrum. A few possessions later, a scrum for the ball ensued when Waldrum hastily attempted two shots, but Villar eventually stuffed his shot again. Alex Mattina drained a three to give Baruch their first lead of the night eight minutes in. Following a Panthers’ timeout, both offenses failed to get into a rhythm until Dwayne Brydie knocked down a three. Georgios Zavos stole the ball and had a clear path for a layup, but mistimed his leap and botched the easy bucket. He redeemed himself by raining in a deep 3-pointer and flexed as he ran back on defense.

With the Bearcats up five points and just over six minutes remaining in the half, Birmingham-Southern replaced most of its starting lineup, which seemed to reinvigorate the team. Back-to-back threes by Calvin Bak and Alex Perkins brought the Panthers within one. Waldrum remained a nuisance in the paint as he corralled a number of offensive rebounds and put-backs to tie the game at 25 a piece. He rejected a Zavos layup and the Panthers hit a three to retake the lead.

Once Birmingham-Southern substituted some of its taller players off the court, Baruch captain Chimaechi “Chima” Ekekeugbor, who played the entire match, was free to thunder down a furious dunk. Despite its efforts, Baruch walked into the locker room down 30-26 at halftime.

Both teams efficiently executed their offenses after the break. The lead flip-flopped after each layup and jump shots swished through the net. Baruch ran its half-court offense just as it was scripted—with staggered off-ball screens and the ball-fizzing around the perimeter to get open looks. Whenever the offense began to stall, the guards had the freedom and ability to attack the hoop at will. The weak spot for the Bearcats in this game was second-chance points. The Panthers totaled 17 points after a miss compared to eight for the home team. They made up for their rebounding deficiency with a +7 turnover margin. Much of their second half rally resulted from their 14 points scored off of turnovers.

Down one with five minutes left, Chima rose up and denied the Panthers’ Evan Lewis at the rim. Doyin fearlessly drove at three defenders and spun the ball off the backboard to give Baruch the lead once more, which they never relinquished.

Chima dominated the final three minutes as he scored six of Baruch’s last 12 points and frustrated the Panthers on defense. He finished with a double-double consisting of 16 points, 12 rebounds, three blocks and two steals. Clutch free-throw shooting down the stretch by Chima and Doyin, who led the team with 18 points, sealed the victory for the Bearcats 76-72.

Just one game into the regular season, it is clear that the Bearcats’ weakness lies in poor game management when playing with the lead. The team often resigned once it gained the advantage, leaving the door open for its opponent to crawl back into the match. Relatively speaking, the Panthers are one of the easier teams it will face this season, thus leaving question as to how the Bearcats will play against marquee opponents. Still, it is early in the season, with plenty of time for the Bearcats to shake off their inconsistencies with little effect on their overall season.

The Bearcats will travel to Buffalo, New York, over the weekend to take on Goucher College before facing either Utica College or Medaille College in the WNY Knee & Orthopedic Surgery Tournament. The team’s first CUNY Athletic Conference match comes on Black Friday, where it will take on York College in Queens, New York.

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