By Jeff Nations
WINCHESTER -- There are glimmers of hope, even in the midst of an energy-sapping losing streak.
Shenandoah University's men's basketball team hasn't won a game since Nov. 28, a span that stretched over 14 contests heading into Wednesday night's matchup against Old Dominion Athletic Conference rival Bridgewater at Shingleton Gymnasium.
The Hornets remained 0-for-the-ODAC following another loss, this one a 70-61 setback.
The positives were there for the Hornets, at times.
Down 42-26 at halftime, Shenandoah (3-19, 0-13 ODAC) summoned the will to get back in the game against the bigger Eagles in the second half. They did it by amping up the defensive intensity, which helped an offense that had sputtered over the first 20 minutes.
Bryce Mitchell's layup on a fast break pulled the Hornets within 60-54 with 4:46 to play, and Shenandoah was just a missed Jimi Starks jumper from cutting that deficit to four on the next trip down the floor.
Instead, Bridgewater (13-9, 7-6 ODAC) scored four straight points to stretch the lead back to 10. That's where it hovered for the next two minutes before Starks hit the first of two free throws to cut it back to seven at 65-58 with 1:23 to play. He missed the second, an unfortunate trend for the Hornets. Shenandoah connected on just 11 of 27 free throws for the game, a dismal 40.7 percent success rate.
"We have to go back to work," Hornets coach Rob Pryor said. "It's my responsibility to get them shooting free throws better, and we'll do that."
The Hornets didn't shoot well from anywhere in the first half, as Bridgewater's superior size encouraged rushed shots from low-percentage spots on the floor. A 9-0 run midway through the half boosted the Eagles' lead to 31-17 with 4:47 to go, and Bridgewater just kept adding to that from the field and at the foul line. Romie Powell's three-point play with four seconds left in the half put the Eagles up by 19, but Mitchell sliced into that with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer for Shenandoah to end the half.
Mitchell provided a helpful spark off the bench. A sometime starter, the junior point guard scored a team-high 17 points and helped stir up the defensive intensity in the second half.
"All we needed to do was come out and play harder, which we did," Mitchell said. "It all comes down to the free throws. We lost because we missed too many free throws."
Daniel McClain's jumper to open the second half boosted Bridgewater's lead to 18, but Shenandoah promptly scored 10 straight points to whittle that lead down to eight. Jared Carithers (10 points) scored on back-to-back layups, and Eli McEathron drained a 3-pointer before Jim Starks capped the rally with a layup that made it 44-36.
The Eagles regrouped and pushed their advantage back to 14 points, only to watch Shenandoah get back within single digits on Mitchell's layup with 9:44 to go.
Again Bridgewater forged further ahead, this time by 13 on Matthew Hunter's second made free throw, but Shenandoah rallied behind Mitchell to cut it to six at the 4:46 mark.
The Hornets simply couldn't sustain those mini rallies throughout the second half, but Pryor thought it was that disappointing first half that ultimately cost his team a badly-needed win.
"That's not us -- in the first half we did take a lot of one-shot possessions and a lot of shots were bad," Pryor said. "We did a tremendous job of doing that against Guilford [a 66-56 loss last Saturday] and we took a step back in that. In the first half, we got away from our game plan and it cost us. You can't dig a hole like that against a good team like Bridgewater and then expect to win the game in the second half."
McClain scored 17 points to lead Bridgewater, and Zach Hunter chipped in 10. The Eagles outrebounded Shenandoah, 57-32.
McEathron added eight points for the Hornets.
"It really just wears on you as the season goes on, but you know we've got to keep coming in here every day and, even when we don't have practice, get into the gym and work on our shots -- just keep working until the season's over," McEathron said.
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or email@example.com>