Transylvania Coach Brian Lane has been pounding a message into his young team ever since its season appeared to hit rock bottom on Jan. 2.
In a five-minute span that afternoon against Rose-Hulman, the Pioneers lost three post players to significant injuries on their way to a 72-63 defeat that dropped them to 2-9 on the year. Since then, Lane has been assuring his team that if it qualifies for the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference Tournament, it can absolutely win it and claim an automatic bid to the Division III dance.
On Saturday against Bluffton, the Pioneers took a big step toward realizing that goal, knocking off the Beavers 73-64 at the Beck Center to win for the seventh time in their last 10 games and move into sole possession of sixth place in the conference at 8-6. The top six teams in the HCAC qualify for the tournament and Transy now holds a one-game lead over seventh-place Manchester, and is one win away from potentially moving up to the No. 3 seed with four games to go.
“Losing those guys, we’ve had to play three or four different ways all year long,” Lane said. “We’ve had to overcome a lot. But we’re gelling at the right time. And to the guys’ credit, they’ve been really focused since we got into league play. We’ve been focusing on the conference. The conference schedule is what can get us into the NCAA Tournament.”
Forward Bo Schuh was a particularly stinging casualty of that five-minute span at Rose-Hulman. The freshman was averaging 13.3 points to go with 5.9 rebounds and a conference-leading 2.1 blocks per game when he suffered a season-ending ACL tear. But Lane has been pleased with the way his guards have carried more of the burden.
“Once our numbers started dwindling because of the injuries we really asked our guards to step up and they’ve done it,” he said.
The Pioneers leaned on their backcourt to beat back every charge Bluffton mustered Saturday. The backcourt tandem of junior Alex Jones and freshman Cooper Theobald scored nearly half of Transy’s points. Jones had a game-high 21 on 10-for-20 shooting. Theobald was on target as well, going 5-for-9 from the field for 14 points.
“Cooper as a guard is absolutely as tough as they come ... and Alex, when he distributes the ball after the other team keys on him, that’s when we’re playing at our best,” Lane said.
The duo was in sync all game long, routinely beating Bluffton’s backcourt pressure, turning rebounds into fast breaks and attacking the paint to either score or hit an open teammate. Jones dished out six of the team’s 13 assists against just one turnover. Four of those passes found their way into the hands of forward Parker Stansberry. The senior, one of only two on the Pioneers’ roster, had 18 points on 8-for-16 shooting and led Transy with 12 rebounds.
“I think we’ve finally found our identity,” Theobald said. “We’re one of the more athletic teams in the conference. We’ve realized we can run up and down on teams and that when we do that and then sit down and really guard we can be one of the best teams, if not the best team in this league.”
After Transylvania jumped out to an 11-2 lead, Austin Rohde got the Beavers back in the game. He scored 12 of his 21 points in the last 10 minutes of the first half, including a baseline jumper at the buzzer, to cut the Pioneers’ lead to 35-32 at halftime. Bluffton kept it close until the final minutes but could never wrest away the lead. Transylvania closed late with a 20-13 run, punctuated by a driving dish from Jones to Robert Dence for a layup and a 65-56 lead.
Lane likes the fight his young Pioneers have shown late in the season and thinks they’re peaking at the right time to make another postseason run after missing out on last season’s HCAC and NCAA tournaments.
“If you’d have seen us early in the year, then the middle of the year, then now, you’d see three different teams. And I like the one we have now,” he said. “Once we get some people healthy, we’re getting ready to be pretty darn good.”
Transylvania returns to action Wednesday on the road against first-place Mt. St. Joseph at 7:30, looking to avenge a 69-60 January loss.
Josh Sullivan: 859-231-3225
TRANSYLVANIA 73, BLUFFTON 64
Bluffton (10-10, 5-8 HCAC) — Taflinger 3-14 2-2 10, Terrill 2-8 0-0 5, Wentling 5-10 1-2 12, Rohde 8-17 4-5 21, Recker 3-7 5-6 11, Christie 0-0 0-0 0, Elchert 1-3 0-0 2, Buchholz 0-0 0-0 0, Carey 1-2 0-0 2, Green 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 23-62 12-15 64.
Transylvania (8-12, 7-6) — Gordon 2-6 0-0 6, Jones 10-20 21, Stansberry 8-16 2-2 18, Theobald 5-9 4-4 14, Dence 5-6 0-1 10, Moling 0-0 0-0 0, Jones 0-0 0-0 0, Pollard 0-1 0-0 0, Bickel 2-6 0-0 4, Burgess 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 32-64 7-8 73.
Halftime—Transylvania 35-32. Three-point goals—Bluffton 6-24 (Taflinger 2-9, Rohde 1-1, Elchert 1-2, Wentling 1-4, Terrill 1-6, Carey 0-1, Green 0-1), Transylvania 2-9 (Gordon 2-6, Stansberry 2-9). Rebounds—Bluffton 33 (Wentling 14), Transylvania 36 (Stansberry 12). Assists—Bluffton 10 (Wentling 4), Transylvania 13 (Jones 6). Total fouls—Bluffton 18, Transylvania 14. A—n/a.