There is not much left that Glenn Gutierrez hasn’t tried.
Gutierrez, Washington & Jefferson College’s men’s basketball coach, has seen his team battle through a rough stretch, losing four of five games. The common thread in all five outings has been the Presidents’ slow starts. W&J finds itself saddled with a big deficit early in the game, and with the exception of a tougher-than-expected five-point win over struggling Geneva, the Presidents have been unable to battle all the way back.
So Gutierrez has tried talking to his players before games, after games and during practices about the importance of starting fast and making the opponent play catch-up basketball.
So what happened Saturday in a key Presidents’ Athletic Conference game against Thiel? W&J trailed by 15 points a little more than 11 minutes into the game.
Gutierrez yelled. He called three timeouts. He slammed his clipboard off the court. He cajoled. He begged. He pleaded. He demanded. Nothing worked.
The Presidents continued to follow their script of slow starts followed by comebacks and, ultimately, tough losses as Thiel pulled out a 67-58 victory at Henry Memorial Center.
The win pushes Thiel (7-4, 10-7) two games ahead of W&J (5-6, 7-13) and solidly in fourth place in the PAC. The top four teams in the league will receive home games in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament.
“The start of the game hurt us, and we’ve talked about the importance of starting fast because our last three or four games have followed the same pattern,” Gutierrez said. “Even the game we won, against Geneva, we started slowly and the whole night was a struggle. We’ve been starting the same way, which is flat. We rely too much on making shots to get us going instead of coming out with energy and making things a byproduct of that.”
Against Thiel, W&J held only one lead, that at 2-1 after a basket by senior guard Zach Bellhy, who scored a game-high 19 points. Bellhy, however, was called for a defensive foul less than three minutes into the game and then assessed a technical foul. The two quick fouls got Bellhy a seat on the bench, and the Presidents’ offense exited with him.
Thiel held W&J to two field goals over the next nine minutes and forged a 24-9 lead.
“That has been our M.O. lately – we can’t get out of own way early,” Gutierrez said.
With Bellhy back in the game and having switched to a three-quarter court press, the Presidents managed to gain some momentum and pull to within 36-29 at halftime. The roll continued early in the second half, as four different W&J players scored during an 8-2 spurt that trimmed Thiel’s lead to 38-37.
Thiel led 44-40 when the Tomcats got some offensive contributions from some unlikely sources to push the advantage back to double figures.
Freshman guard Marquis Jackson (2.7 points per game) came off the bench and made consecutive three-pointers. Eric Mallinger (3.8 ppg), another reserve, made two free throws and hit the offensive boards for a basket that gave Thiel a 54-40 lead.
“Our bench has been the difference,” Thiel coach Tim Loomis said. “We have a better bench than anyone in the league. It has really carried us.”
Following the scoring outburst from Jackson and Mallinger, W&J never got to within single digits until the waning seconds when point guard Doug Johnson made the last of his four three-point field goals.
The win was the second in a row for Thiel and distanced the Tomcats from a midseason six-game losing streak.
“We’re still not where we were, but we’re getting there,” Loomis said.
Chace McKinney led a balanced Thiel offense with 13 points. A.J. Forbes came off the bench to score 10.
Johnson scored 14 points for W&J, but the Presidents committed 20 turnovers, which prevented them from generating enough offense to complete a comeback.
“You can’t have 20 turnovers against a team that is not pressing, trapping or making you play fast,” Gutierrez said.
Barring any major upsets, the loss likely tickets W&J for a road game when the PAC tournament begins next month.
“The good thing is, in our conference this year, it’s wide open,” Gutierrez said. “Last year, the bottom four teams had only two wins over the top four teams, and one of those was our win over Thiel in the tournament. This year, the bottom four teams already have three wins. The team that does the best job of playing its style will win it.”