UE made it another win with huge offensive runs sparked by lockdown defense in its 72-46 victory Monday night over Alabama A&M.
Senior Colt Ryan returned from a hip pointer injury to lead all scorers with 13 points while senior Ned Cox chipped in 12 and sophomore Jaylon Moore 10.
Good, yes, but coach Marty Simmons said not good enough: “I thought we played in spurts. We didn’t get off to a very good start there, and at times we were sloppy and lethargic. But at other times, we showed some real sharpness, and as I said earlier, we’re just striving for consistency. We’ve got to get better…A little bit of fool’s gold with (defense) tonight. They missed some open shots, and I didn’t feel like our intensity of our attention to detail was quite the same as what it was at Tennessee Tech the other night.”
The defense has improved statistically by leaps and bounds from an “embarrassing” (in Simmons’ words) unit to one that entered 11th in Division I in points allowed per game. “I do agree with coach,” said the sophomore Moore, who reached double figures for the second straight game. “It was embarrassing last year to be so low in the bottom ranking in defense…That’s what we mainly focus on in practice is defense. We’re getting better at it, and we just want to keep improving.”
Added Ryan on the defense: “The coaching staff kind of showed it to us at the beginning of the year, and the team accepted it. We said we don’t want to have that kind of year. We want to be better on the defensive end, and I think it all starts with there (being) a core group of guys who really buy into it. When you can get a couple guys out there that really buy into it, it can go a long way.”
The Aces won their fourth straight game (they didn’t do that all of last season) after an 0-2 start. They did it mostly without Ryan and facing three games in five days to cap the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic before a road game at Tennessee Tech. “I thought the guys really rose to the challenge those next two games of the tournament with no preparation time, without your best player – your leading scorer – I think our team really stepped up,” Simmons said.
Speaking of Ryan, he received some treatment after the game but played 22 minutes. The injury happened almost two weeks ago in UE’s last loss to Buffalo. “I made sure that I got it real loose before the game,” Ryan said. “A lot of times I didn’t notice it too bad, but then a couple times with quick movements, especially like around the room scoring the ball as high as I can, I could kind of feel it. But overall, it felt pretty good. It was great to get back playing with the guys, and I really enjoyed it.”
Is Ryan back for good? “Hopefully, as long as everything keeps going well,” he said. “It’s been progressing better each day, so I don’t see it changing.”
Ryan said he learned something about the Aces watching most of three games on the bench — the first games he missed in his collegiate career: “The thing I noticed when I wasn’t playing was just how hard everyone else was playing. It was contagious, and I tried to tell the guys, ‘You know, we need to keep that up, even when I come back.’ We did that in spurts tonight, not for the full 40 minutes. At Tennessee Tech we did it for pretty much the full 40 minutes, and we’ve got a great Colorado State team coming up Saturday that we’re getting ready for.”
Next for the Aces is Saturday’s game at Colorado State, an NCAA tournament team from last year that’s receiving votes in both national polls. “We’ve been to Notre Dame, so our guys understand the competition level even though they’re different teams,” Simmons said, “just how hard we’re going to have to play and overall just how well we’re going to have to play to have a chance to win.”