A big performance from junior forward Justin Pierce and clutch scoring from freshman guard LJ Owens and junior guard Matt Milon powered William and Mary to a 79-69 win against High Point. The Tribe (1-0), missing its only senior in forward Paul Rowley and playing all five of its scholarship freshmen for substantial minutes, looked the part of an extremely young team at times Wednesday, but also showed the toughness necessary to get stops and buckets at key points. The Panthers (0-1) clawed back from an 11-point second-half deficit to tie the game with 5:43 to play, but could not pull ahead in the loss.
“I think we beat a good basketball team tonight,” head coach Tony Shaver said. “Like you would normally expect on an opening night, there were ups and downs, periods of great execution on both ends of the floor and periods of poor execution. … We really battled.”
Both teams got off to a sloppy start, wading into the new campaign. After High Point opened the scoring, sophomore guard Jihar Williams got the Tribe on the board, hitting one of two free throws. It would take nearly three minutes for the College to score again, until Pierce slammed home the first Tribe field goal of the season off an alley-oop inbounds play to make it 4-3 Panthers.
High Point would extend their lead to 9-3, hitting shots on back-to-back possessions. Junior forward Nathan Knight would respond with his first foray onto the scoresheet for the year, following a Pierce miss plus the foul. He would make the free throw to cut the deficit to three with 14:40 to play in the half. Knight, however, would not be much of a factor in the first half, battling foul trouble the entire night.
“[Knight] just got two very tough calls early on in the ball game, and we’re going to set him down with two in that first half,” Shaver said. “He never got back in the flow of the game.”
The pace of play sped up as the teams went back-and-forth with quick buckets. Owens took over from there, as he hit two three-pointers in the span of a little over a minute. The second, which came with 11:09 to go, gave the Tribe its first lead of the night at 16-13. After guard Denny Slay hit a mid-range jumper for the Panthers, the Tribe went on a 15-4 run highlighted by a driving Owens dunk, expanding its lead to 31-19.
“At first I was pretty nervous, but the boys just helped me get into it, get into my game,” Owens said. “I just wanted to come out confident. If I had an open shot I wanted to just take it, shoot it with confidence, and I got off to a good start.”
Following the under-four media timeout, the Panthers responded with a spurt of its own, outscoring the College 11-3 to close the half down 34-30. High Point guard Jahaad Proctor scored 15 points in the first, while Owens dropped 14 for the Tribe.
After halftime, Milon came alive. High Point quickly cut the lead to one, but two treys by Milon as well as an and-one driving lay-in contributed to a 13-3 run to add to the Tribe’s 47-36 advantage.
“Matt didn’t perform well in the first half, and I challenged him a little at halftime,” Shaver said. “He was fantastic in the second half.”
However, the Panthers responded. A pull-up jumper by guard Brandonn Kamga and a Proctor finish at the rim slimmed the College lead to just five with 14:32 left in the game. After Kamga drained a three to make it 48-46, Pierce responded with a three of his own. A couple possessions later, Pierce made a tough turning floater. Two High Point buckets sandwiched around a layup by freshman forward Mehkel Harvey took the teams into the under-12 timeout with the Tribe leading 55-50.
After Knight missed a right-handed hook, Kamga hit a three to pull the Panthers within two. But Knight would redeem himself, getting to the rim and finishing through a foul. Momentum would shift, though, as two quick buckets by Kamga tied the game at 57 with 8:17 to play.
Baskets by Knight and sophomore guard Luke Loewe gave the Tribe a four-point advantage following the under-eight timeout, and, after Proctor made two free throws, Pierce took a pass from Knight and finished a scoop shot, plus the foul. He would hit the free throw after a timeout to give the Tribe a 69-64 lead with 3:49 left in the game.
“Justin was really tough tonight, really tough,” Shaver said. “He made a lot of tough plays for us tonight, from rebounding to loose balls.”
A big defensive stop got the ball back for the Tribe, but Kamga would steal the ensuing inbounds pass and complete a three-point play the old-fashioned way, cutting the Tribe lead to two. On the following possession, the College nearly turned the ball over with sloppy passes but, with the shot clock running perilously low, Loewe hit a pull-up 28-footer to push the Tribe lead back to 72-67 with 2:33 to play.
“I was just hoping it would hit the rim,” Pierce said. “That was a hell of a shot, amazing.”
With the Tribe still up five and just more than a minute to play in the game, Owens was denied at the bucket. High Point pushed the ball and Kamga found Proctor wide open under the basket, but the guard hurried the layup and missed. Pierce ended up with the rebound and on the ensuing possession, Milon hit a dagger three-ball, giving the College a 77-69 lead with 41 seconds to play. Milon would hit two free throws to seal the deal for the Tribe.
“We took a lot of positives from this game,” Pierce said. “One of the positives I took away from this game is, we got a lot of guys who contributed to this win tonight. It wasn’t pretty, [Knight] was in foul trouble, Matt struggled in the first half, but guys like LJ, Mehkel, [freshman guard Chase Audige], everyone really brought it today. It was a total team win.”
Pierce led the Tribe in the victory with 23 points and 14 rebounds, while Milon added 19 and Owens finished with 14. For the Panthers, Proctor finished with 25 to lead all scorers, while Kamga put up 24.
The College will now hit the road for the first three games of the Gotham Classic before returning for the final game of the set. Saturday, the Tribe travels to Pittsburgh to take on Duquesne before facing Illinois-Chicago and Notre Dame Nov. 15 and 17, respectively. The College will return home to play Radford Nov. 20.