By Jeff Nations - firstname.lastname@example.org
WINCHESTER -- When Shenandoah University's men's basketball team needed a couple productive second-half possessions to bury USA South rival Averett on Saturday, Hornets coach Rob Harris had to be wondering which of his players brought the shovel to Shingleton Gymnasium.
Two players Harris couldn't count on were regular junior starters Kevin Kline and Mitch Dudley, who both missed the pivotal Senior Day conference matchup with injuries.
The Hornets made do with a makeshift rotation, as junior Brandon Bryan provided a team-high 16 points, a trio of seniors all hit double-digit scoring marks, and freshman guard Corey Leavenberry delivered a late boost after sitting out the first half to help Shenandoah lock up a second-place finish in the conference standings with a 71-66 victory that assures the Hornets a first-round home game in the conference tournament later this month.
Kline (sprained ankle) and Dudley (broken hand) would not have been in the starting lineup even if they been healthy, as Harris gave that assignment to his five seniors. It wasn't always pretty, but that group along with a little relief by Bryan helped the Hornets jump out to a 19-10 lead.
That start was all the more impressive, considering Kline and Dudley are SU's top two scorers this season. The Hornets still managed a solid shooting effort, hitting better than half their attempts (24-of-45 for 53.3 percent).
"I felt like we've got some guys that are capable of stepping up," senior guard Kenny Robertson said. "Losing Mitch and Kevin, that is big, but I think we've got guys on the team that have proven themselves in the past and they [did] it again tonight."
Robertson was one of them, chipping in 12 points and 10 rebounds. Fellow seniors Lenzie Adams (14 points) and Chris Schrader (13 points) also notched double digits for Shenandoah (10-13 overall, 7-3 USA South), which will host the No. 7 seed in the upcoming conference tournament on Feb. 23.
Bryan, SU's fourth-leading scorer this season, said the absence of Dudley and Kline did have an effect on his offensive mentality.
"I have a feeling that I have to step up more, but I'm not going to go out of my role," Bryan said. "I'm not going to throw up wild shots. I'm going to maybe look for my shot a little bit more, but I'm going to take that in the offensive set.
"I'm not going to break out on my own and try to put something up that's not a high-percentage shot. I'm just going to try to get a good shot out of it."
Harris said that while the all-senior starting lineup certainly hasn't been the norm for Shenandoah, it isn't like the group hasn't played together before. Actually, it has been a semi-regular occurrence as Harris has occasionally split his squad into a seniors against juniors alignment during practices this season.
"So this was not like a big shock to them," Harris said. "We've already done this in practice."
Averett (9-14, 6-5), which trailed 36-33, stayed well within striking range throughout as the Cougars kept alive their own hopes of a second-place seeding in the conference tournament.
The Hornets' lack of a consistent flow on offense helped Averett stay close, but Shenandoah's ever-present defensive effort made certain the Cougars never got into any kind of rhythm, either.
"They're a very good offensive team," Harris said of Averett. "They're just coming off of playing Christopher Newport and they had 90 points and they controlled the game as I watched it. So it was very important that we stepped up defensively and did some good things."
Leavenberry, who didn't play in the first half after missing Friday's practice for family reasons, promptly came off the bench to drain a 3-pointer on his first attempt from the field in the second half. Leavenberry's fast-break layup with 7:26 to go gave Shenandoah the lead for good and jump-started a 6-0 run put the Hornets up by five points. Averett twice cut that margin to three points, but never got closer before Bryan locked up SU's win by sinking a pair of free throws with 27 seconds to play.
Robertson, who recorded his first double-double of the season, was happy to see his team pull together in a trying situation to complete the season sweep of Averett.
"Even though we weren't clicking as well as the normal starting group, I think we did OK," Robertson said. "... We had to tough it out, and I'm proud of the guys for doing that even though we haven't played together as much."
Harris said Kline won't practice this week and will likely be held out of the Hornets' final two regular-season games as he tries to recover from what is still considered an ankle sprain in time to play in the postseason.
Dudley's status is even more in doubt after he was diagnosed with a broken hand on Friday, an injury he told Harris occurred in Thursday's home win against Ferrum. Dudley's right hand was in a splint on Saturday, and Harris is still holding out hope he's not done for the season.
"It's a day-by-day, hour-by-hour situation," Harris said. "... I'm not ready to declare him out. The Lord has done many miracles before, so I'm going to stick by that."
Ruben Pierce finished with a game-high 22 points to lead Averett, which also got a 19-point outing from Brandon Malone.