Lions’ guard Michael Sheng's defense was so suffocating, he was in WPI forward Chris Rodgers’ uniform, as Emerson head coach Bill Curley put it after the game.
With seconds on the clock, Sheng forced the WPI junior guard to step back and throw up a shot that looked destined to miss. Instead, it found the net, handing the Lions their 11th consecutive loss.
“If the guy hits a shot like that, you just shake his hand and say, ‘Good job,’” freshman forward Alex Mrusek said. “Sheng was playing great defense; we all had our guys locked up ready to rebound.”
In the final two minutes, sophomore guard Geoff Gray scored four key points to give Emerson a 61-60 lead. Instead of calling a timeout with 15.9 seconds on the clock, WPI head coach Chris Bartley elected to put the game in his players’ hands. Rodgers answered the call.
An inbounding pass from junior forward John Geary to Gray with 1.1 seconds remaining reached its intended target. But Gray’s shot from beyond half court was well short. The final score: 62-61 Engineers.
Emerson struggled to create good looks on offense early, hampered by WPI’s tight man-to-man defense. The Lions had difficulty matching up with Engineers forward Ian Converse early, but he shot just two of eight from the field in the first half, and picked up two fouls before the break.
The early defensive battle limited scoring: ten minutes in, the teams had combined for just 20 points, with WPI leading 14-6. Emerson failed to score for a stretch of 4:34 before a Mrusek free throw made it 14-7 with just under 10 minutes to play in the first half.
The Lions found a rhythm on offense with just over five minutes to go in the first half. They forced a WPI shot-clock violation, and freshman guard Ben Holding made a tough jumper with a defender in his face on the other end.
Junior forward John Geary capped off Emerson’s late resurgence— he had time to take a deep breath before hitting an open three from the corner to tie the score at 24 at half.
A Sheng three kicked off scoring in the second half. Emerson made 10 of its 22 shots from beyond the arc, with four coming from Geary, who finished with a team high 16 points.
From there, the teams traded points, both finding the basket with ease compared to the first half. There were 11 lead changes overall.
Emerson’s downfall came with a number of turnovers, Curley said. The Lions erred 13 times on the night, while WPI turned the ball over just seven times.
“These guys have to understand we’re going to win when we’re ready to win,” Curley said. “We had several turnovers early in the game, late in the game, where we just lose the ball, and all that stuff adds up. The basketball gods aren’t going to smile on us until we show up every day and understand that it’s a full 40 [minutes], it’s a full two days of preparation.”
Freshman guard Kent Ellertson had the hot hand off the bench, knocking down threes on consecutive Lions possessions midway through the second half and then converting each of the three free throws he was afforded after being fouled in the act of shooting another.
Curley said he was impressed with his team’s offensive showing.
“This is probably the best game we’ve had all year moving the ball, especially against a team that doesn’t let you run your offense,” Curley said. “Our guys were running and getting what they wanted.”
WPI swept the season series with the win. The Engineers defeated Emerson 86-64 last month, despite a similarly strong effort from Geary, who scored 15 and made five threes. The Jan. 14 loss marked the first conference game that Emerson outrebounded its opponent, beating WPI 40-31 on the glass.
The Lions again shined in that area Wednesday, with Mrusek grabbing a game-high four offensive boards and the team winning the rebounding battle 37-29. Mrusek said playing alongside Mac Sashin has given him better opportunities to rebound.
“Now that Mac’s inside [and] we’re playing at the same time, I can stay outside and read where the ball is going to go,” Mrusek said.
Emerson (4-16, 0-8) will travel to Clark for a 1 p.m. tip on Saturday. Five games remain on the Lions’ schedule.