The Transylvania men’s basketball team, boasting four starters with double-figure scoring, knocked off visiting Manchester University 73-66 at the Beck Center on Saturday for its eighth straight win.
Freshman guard Gabe Schmitt, a Trinity alum, led the Pioneers with 18 points on 6-of-10 shooting, including 4-for-8 from behind the arc. Sophomore sensation Cooper Theobald was predictably impressive as well. Eleven days after setting Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference records for free-throw attempts and makes (29-32), Theobald dropped 16 points and swiped a game-high eight rebounds and helped Transy slam the door in the closing moments.
After the Spartans rode a 21-5 run to get within five points with just under four minutes to go, Theobald returned from an extended break and beat his man on a backdoor cut for a layup off one of Alex Jones’ eight assists. Two possessions later, he pulled down a clutch offensive rebound off a missed free throw and found Schmitt for a driving layup and a 66-57 Transy advantage. Theobald’s pull-up jumper with a minute and a half to play stretched the lead to nine.
Despite letting a 20-point second-half lead shrink to five, Theobald said the outcome was never in doubt.
“We knew we were gonna pull it out; no one here doubts themselves and no one doubts the team,” he said. “We knew we were getting a little sloppy on offense, so we just had to come together and clean it up and we did.”
A renewed sense of confidence and rapidly developing chemistry among a young roster has Transy looking like a completely different team than the one that stumbled to a 2-5 record out of the gate. The Pioneers righted their ship over the last month and are riding the team’s longest win streak since 2011.
“I think we really just needed a little shot of confidence,” said head coach Brian Lane. “This is starting to turn into the team that I thought we’d have at the beginning of the year.”
As the team’s only returning starters, Theobald and backcourt mate Jones have played major roles in the turnaround.
“Alex and Cooper do a great job of getting into the gaps and finding open shooters. They really help make sure we get the best shot possible,” said Schmitt, a first-year starter along with fellow freshman Spencer McKinney and sophomore Kyle Gullett, who transferred from Southeast Missouri.
Theobald said a shift toward a more up-tempo offense and a focus on transition defense has helped spur the Pioneers’ run as well.
“When our defense picks up and we really get into people and guard, that’s when we’re at our best,” he said. “Every day in practice … we’re really getting after it. That’s definitely the big emphasis, and then our motion offense, we’re really trying to hit that hard.”
Theobald said the Pioneers make sure to hold one another accountable and that was clearly illustrated against Manchester when McKinney was unhappy with the transition defense on a couple of occasions. After the second breakdown, McKinney fouled a Spartan to spoil an easy fast-break bucket then clapped his hands and yelled “get back!”
Lane said McKinney’s vocal leadership style is a great complement to the lead-by-example approach of several other Pioneers.
“It’s a really good concept because we’ve got guys who are great leaders but aren’t really vocal,” he said. “I think it’s more in Spencer’s DNA being the son of a coach. You don’t see that a lot of times out of freshmen, but Spencer’s not afraid to speak up.”
McKinney, who played for his father at Danville high school, said tough love is just part of the game.
“I’m very competitive and I want to win, just like all of these guys,” he said. “If I see something wrong I’m gonna let the guys know and I want them to do the same with me. That’s how you get better.”
With their slow start well in the rearview mirror, the Pioneers are in a great position to make a run at the team’s first NCAA Division III Tournament appearance since 2013. At 10-5 on the year and 5-3 in the conference, Transy sits alone in fourth place in the HCAC standings and will earn a conference tournament berth with a top-six finish. Over the next three weeks they’ll face the three teams ahead of them in the standings, beginning with a road trip to Mt. St. Joseph on Wednesday. With the way the Pioneers are playing and the way the schedule breaks, Theobald said this group won’t settle for a top-six finish.
“We’re all really excited for this chance to prove ourselves, getting to play those top-three teams, and we’re absolutely gunning for that number one spot,” he said.
Josh Sullivan; 859-231-3225
Transylvania at Mt. St. Joseph
7:30 p.m. Wednesday