Bilali Mack knows that for the Emerson offense to work at it’s best, the Lions’ premiere three-point shooters, Carlos Negrete and Tom Messinger, need to have open looks at the basket.
And for that to happen, Mack and his teammates need to do the opposite — drive the lane.
“The only way for us to spread the court and get shots for Tommy and [Carlos] is to backcourt cut and to attack,” said Mack. “Once they start making the threes, it makes it even easier for us to score and opens up the whole offense.”
By dragging defenders down toward the basket with him, Mack leaves Messinger and Negrete out on the wings with minimal opposition. With the defense drawn inside, a quick pass out usually results in an open three-pointer. Messinger and Negrete have combined for 118 three’s this season.
While in Saturday’s matchup versus Emmanuel College, Mack continued to dish out to his teammates beyond the arc — Messinger and Negrete each scored 17 points — he also created his own looks, keeping the Saints’ defense off-balance.
Mack finished with eight points, nearly all of them coming on baskets at the rim. That, combined with a smothering defense, led the Lions to a 79-72 victory.
“We already knew from the last game that [Emmanuel] shot 11 percent from the three-point line,” interim head coach Lynn Ramage said. “They shot 30 percent from the floor. We knew if we could keep them out of the driving lane, we would have a good chance to win the game.”
Though the Saints were leading by four at the 18-minute mark, it would prove to be Emmanuel’s largest lead of the night, as Emerson quickly surpassed them, led by Mack.
Starting in the middle of the first half, Mack continually drove to the basket. On two separate occasions, he was fouled but still made the basket and the free-throw to convert them into three-point plays. These penetrating plays opened up the court for the three-point shooters Negrete and Messinger to pump up the Emerson home crowd.
In the second half, Alex Dempsey picked up where Mack left off. The junior guard used his moves in the post to score 12 points in just 16 minutes of playing time. Down the stretch, Dempsey scored on a layup while being fouled. He made the free throw to put Emerson ahead by 11, its largest lead of the night.
“They started getting comfortable and started to press us,” Mack said. “[Alex] came in in the second half and he started attacking to put the pressure on them. He broke their press and started going to the basket, and at the end [of the game] we only had to do time management.”
On the defensive end, the Lions held Emmanuel to 16 percent shooting from three-point range. Junior guard Drew Venter had four steals, including an outright strip from Saints’ point guard D.J. Fazio to stifle a late-game rally.
“The overlying theme in every huddle today was defense,” said Venter, who is studying broadcast journalism. “We know we can score with any team in the league. I think [our defense] finally clicked today, and we got back to Emerson basketball.”
Venter has been a force on defense all year for the Lions. He leads the team in steals with 46 and has grabbed 129 rebounds.
One area where the Lions struggled was on the defensive glass. Saints’ center Theo Robinson grabbed six offensive rebounds, and Emmanuel had 14 second-chance points. In addition, Saints’ guard Xavier Everson dropped 25 points, at times proving too much for Messinger, who recorded his three personal fouls in the first half.
Emmanuel attempted to use Emerson’s strong play and stage a comeback in the final minute, but poor shot-clock management and a late turnover by Fazio sealed the Saints’ fate.
Ramage, who took over as the interim coach Jan. 31, said he was pleased with the effort his players made, and also praised his assistant coaches Mike Sheffler and Bruce Seals.
“The credit goes to my assistants for breaking this game down. I’m the new guy on the block and relying a lot on these guys to tell me the tendencies, what these teams do and don’t do,” he said. “I think this is a much needed win for these kids. They really work hard and no one deserves it more than they do.”
Gabe Souza and Evan Sporer, Beacon staff, contributed to this report.