For 30 minutes, Eastern Mennonite and Virginia Wesleyan went back and forth, locked in an intense battle packed with 17 lead changes and 10 ties. But midway through the second half, something changed.
The visiting Marlins blocked a couple of EMU shots, and then slowly took over, ending the game on a 27-11 run to hand the Royals a 90-75 loss in Harrisonburg.
It was a frustrating ending for the men, and a final deficit not indicative of the overall game, as EMU falls to 7-7 overall and 1-4 in the ODAC. Virginia Wesleyan, the favorite in the ODAC's preseason poll, climbs to 10-4 and 3-2 in the league.
The teams traded 10-point runs to start the game, with the Royals taking the first turn. Sammy Thomas (Owings, Md./Northern), in his first game back in the starting lineup, worked inside for a hoop on the men's first possession, and the team followed suit by scoring on their first five possessions. Isaiah Harris-Winn (Frederick, Md./St. Maria Goretti) canned a three to make it 10-0 just 2:18 in.
VWC's Khory Moore finally connected on a three and the preseason All-American scored the first seven of his team's 10 points to tie it up at 10-10.
From there, neither team led by more than six in a half characterized by good shooting and lots of fouls. Mark Loving (Woodford, Va./Caroline) grabbed a steal and threw down a dunk to give EMU a 40-39 edge at halftime.
The Royals committed 15 turnovers over the first 20 minutes, but made up for it by shooting 53% from the floor and going 19-21 from the free throw line.
The foul-calling swung against EMU at the start of the second half, and Virginia Wesleyan took full advantage. Andre Banks cashed in on a triple to give the Marlins a 53-45 edge at the 15:51 mark, their largest lead up to that point.
But with the second five on the floor, the Royals attacked the hoop to get back in it. Darryl Christian (Forest, Va./Brookville) and Xavier McCants (Olney, Md./Sherwood) combined to score EMU's next 10 points either on layups or free throws, trimming the margin to four.
Finally RaShawn Latimer (Warrenton, Va./Kettle Run) popped a jumper and Thomas hit from inside again to flip the Royals back in front, 64-63, with 10:23 to go.
After a VWC timeout, Latimer grabbed out a steal and charged down court looking for a momentum-building layup. After having his pocket picked, however, Moore trailed his opponent and then swatted away Latimer's attempt. The Marlins took the rebound and proceeded to get a second-chance bucket on their own end, re-gaining the lead and signifying a major shift.
The Royals were blocked again on their next possession, and Banks canned another three to bump VWC to a 68-64 lead. Nearly two minutes later, Banks hit again, capping a crushing 10-0 streak for a 73-64 margin.
Latimer tipped in an attempt to end a drought of 3:42, but the damage had been done. Virginia Wesleyan promptly put the lead into double figures and walked out with the decision as EMU only managed 11 points over the final 10:23.
The Royals shot a solid 46% from the floor and held a slight 33-30 rebounding advantage. They even converted a season-best 29 free throws on 36 attempts. But the men were only 2-12 from outside and were crippled by 23 turnovers.
VWC shot 49% from the floor, including a solid 9-22 from three. They were 21-24 from the stripe and had just 14 turnovers.
McCants was virtually unstoppable on the offensive end, scoring a career high 18 points on 7-for-9 shooting. The sophomore routinely sliced to the rack, avoided defenders and either laid it in or drew a foul. Thomas was equally a force inside, as the 6-7 center put in a career best 13 points to go with five rebounds.
Latimer finished with 12 points and five boards. Harris-Winn was good for nine and seven, while back-up big man Darius Johnson (Altavista, Va./Altavista) set his career high with nine points, all in the first half.
Moore led VWC with 24 points, 10 rebound and five steals. Banks played his role perfectly, hitting 6-of-8 triples for 18 points.
Eastern Mennonite hits the road on Saturday, playing an afternoon game at Hampden-Sydney (6-8/2-3 ODAC).
Despite the loss, Coach Kirby Dean still saw flashes of what his team can do at full strength: