By Jerry Holsworth - firstname.lastname@example.org
WINCHESTER -- Opening your season hosting the No. 3 team in the country can be a daunting task, but Shenandoah University held its own with Eastern Mennonite for most of Monday night's contest before falling to the Royals 85-71 at Shingleton Gymnasium.
"It was a very hard-fought game, and I thought we played exceptionally well at times," Hornets men's basketball coach Robert Harris said. "I saw a lot of good things out there, but there are a lot of things that we can do to get better. We need to work on some of our mistakes, but I think that we're going to be all right this year."
Shenandoah's most glaring mistakes came in the form of 30 turnovers.
"Turnovers were a real key tonight," Harris said. "They scored 36 points off our turnovers. That played a critical role in how the game went."
Despite the turnovers, the Hornets stayed close for almost the entire game, and at times it looked like they were going score a major upset in their season opener. Shenandoah was never behind by more four points throughout the first half, and held the lead through much of the first 20 minutes of play.
The Royals, who rely heavily on the 3-pointer, were cold as ice in the first half, and that helped the Hornets' cause.
Eastern Mennonite went 2-for-16 from behind the 3-point line, and hit just 13 of its 34 first-half field goal attempts. The Royals' top 3-point shooter, George Johnson, was 1-of-6 from the 3-point line in the first half.
"We led the [Old Dominion Athletic Conference] in 3-pointers last season," Royals coach Kirby Dean said. "Our kids know how to shoot that shot, but we were just terrible tonight. Johnson, who was the league leader, had a really bad night and it wasn't because they were in his face. He had enough time to have a Coke then shoot, and he still missed."
Another factor in the closeness of the game was the number of fouls. The Royals, who make their living playing aggressive defense and causing turnovers, were victimized by fouls the entire night. Todd Phillips, who averaged 17.4 points for Eastern Mennonite last season, spent a great deal of time on the bench in foul trouble. He was also scoreless in the first half, failing to make a basket in three attempts.
"The fouls kept us from really getting going," Phillips said. "We play an aggressive game and we expect some fouls, but a lot of the fouls that were called in the game tonight are not fouls in our practices. We just have to learn to adjust to how the game is being called, and we didn't do a very good job."
With fouls, turnovers and poor shooting the dominant characteristics of the first half, the Hornets only trailed 35-31 heading into the final 20 minutes of play.
The Royals came out hot, and quickly built a 45-36 lead, but Shenandoah kept fighting back and eventually took the lead, 62-61, with 7:19 left. But Eastern Mennonite responded with a 10-0 run to put the game out of reach.
Phillips came off the bench and scored half of the Royals' points during the run. He finished the night with 11 points. Johnson led Eastern Mennonite with 17 points, but only managed 3-of-12 from beyond the 3-point line.
Mitch Dudley led the Hornets with 16 points and 18 rebounds.
"We work hard in practice and we believe that we can play with teams like Eastern Mennonite," Dudley said. "It was a good game, but we really expected to win. We just made too many turnovers and that cost us the game. We'll get back to practice and work on that though."
Besides Dudley, Kevin Kline scored in double figures with 14. Former Skyline star Andrew Thorne led Eastern Mennonite with 10 rebounds and scored 12 points for the Royals to record a double-double.