SMITHFIELD — After opening the season with two close losses, the Bryant men’s basketball team jumped on the winning side of the ledger after holding on for an 82-81 victory over Cornell at the Chace Athletic Center on Sunday afternoon.
The Bulldogs survived as Cornell junior Jimmy Boeheim – son of longtime Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim – had a pretty good look at would have been a game-winning three-pointer as the final horn was set to sound. Instead, Boeheim’s bid hit off the back rim.
“We’re a young team that’s evolving and that’s what you have to do – find ways to win,” said Bryant head coach Jared Grasso. “We’ll take them any way we can get them right now.”
Here are a few takeaways after the Bulldogs held on for their first win:
Chairman of the boards
To establish a Bryant single-game Division I record in rebounds is mightily impressive. For Bryant sophomore Pat Harding, his board work on Sunday provided a significant lift in terms of point production that came about after he secured the ball.
Harding pulled down 19 rebounds (eight on the offensive end) in 27 minutes. A few times in the second half, his work on the glass translated into immediate offensive. Mikael Simmons doesn’t get a chance to attempt a three-pointer from the top of the key if Harding doesn’t secure the offensive board. Alas, the sequence was very much real as Simmons' three put the Bulldogs up 62-56 with 9:33 remaining.
“When you get the offensive rebound, the defense really collapses and it’s easy to kick it out for the three,” said Harding.
Another sequence that’s worth noting came later in the game with Bryant protecting a two-point lead. Harding followed up a miss by freshman Benson Lin that stretched the Bulldogs’ lead to 77-73 with 2:27 to play.
If Harding doesn't come up the offensive board in either aforementioned instance, the Bulldogs are probably busing to Wednesday's game at St. Peter's still seeking to break into the win column.
“I tell Pat all the time that I love what he does. If we’re playing games of 2-on-2, I’m always telling him to believe in himself,” said Bryant senior Adam Grant, who against the Big Red led all scorers with 24 points on 7-of-12 shooting (5-of-8 from three).
“He always does the right thing and knows how to read the defense well,” Grant added. “The effort he brings every day, whether it’s practice or games … it’s something we’ve come to expect.”
Through three games, Harding is averaging 11.6 rebounds per outing. He didn’t start Sunday but was out there when the second half got underway. On a day when he made Bulldog rebounding history, it's worth noting that he provided enough offensive punch with eight points while making both of his free throws.
With SaBastian Townes still sidelined with a knee injury, the Bulldogs need Harding to hold down the fort on the backboards. After a freshman season that saw Harding serve as Townes’ understudy, it seems the former is poised to make the kind of jump that goes with the territory of having a better feel for your college surroundings.
“With Bash being out, I know I have to play a bigger role and have my teammates trust me to make plays,” said Harding.
Another Bulldog newcomer steps up
If you subscribe to the belief that the glass is half-empty, the sight of Grant heading to bench with three fouls with 11:42 remaining in the first half was cause for major concern. How in heaven's name were the Bulldogs going survive without their proven scorer?
Now, for the glass is half-full thinking: Grant’s departure helped to open the door for one of his young teammates to step to the forefront.
“When I sat down with three fouls, I had no worries,” said Grant.
On Sunday, the Bulldog who seized the moment was Lin, who calmly pulled into halftime with 16 points on 6-of-10 from the field, 4-of-7 from three. His performance fell right in line with the offensive lift that fellow freshman Michael Green provided against Brown (14 points) and ditto for Charles Pride against Rutgers (22 points).
“Those guys are going to get better because of the experiences they’re getting right now,” said Grasso about the lift the Bulldogs have received from the freshman class to date.
Lin entered Sunday with one field goal in two games, but per Grant, “I told him to keep shooting. We all believe in him. Just believe in yourself, keep your confidence going, and the shots will fall like they did (Sunday).”
A St. Andrew’s product, Lin displayed a swagger that allowed him to dictate the game on his terms. He was the main cog in Bryant’s 22-4 run that helped erase an eight-point deficit and enabled the home team to pull into halftime with a 42-34 lead. When the second half began, it was Lin who was out there while Grant was on the bench. No doubt, Grasso was trying to buy a little extra time for his star senior, but fouls or no fouls, Lin made a strong case to be part of the four-guard lineup that Bryant featured against Cornell.
Lin's productive first half from the field featured seven straight points where his entire skill set was on display, from finishing at the rim to making outside shots. He was also ready to pull the trigger from the beyond the arc when the ball was sent his way after Charles Pride secured the offensive rebound. That particular three-ball from Lin helped Bryant build a seven-point lead (37-30) with just over three minutes left in the first half.
“I know Benson is a very good player. I brought him into my office on Friday and told him to just go out and play,” said Grasso. “There are going to be ups and downs with freshmen, but I’m throwing them to the wolves.”
Good problem to have
The season is still in the early stages, hence Grasso is still doing his part in figuring out the best possible lineup combinations. On Sunday, the Bulldogs with a smaller lineup with one big in an effort to match up best with Cornell. Grasso also ended up seeing eight of his players log 10 or more minutes.
To Grasso, the allocation of minutes and the tough calls that sometimes need to be made are par for the course when you’re team that’s attempting to integrate so many new pieces. Case in point, senior Juan Cardenas went from averaging 15 minutes to logging just two minutes against Cornell. That's not to say that Cardenas, who might be Bryant's best two-way threat, is falling out of favor. He could bounce back with a big workload on Wednesday, depending on the matchup with the Peacocks.
“There are going to be times when it’s not going to be your day and you’re not going to play as much, but that’s what a team is about,” said Grasso. “We’re a team that’s just starting to figure it out. There are going to be bumps in the road with so many new guys, but I like our character and where our culture is going.”
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03