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Robert Morris beats Wagner in NEC tourney opener

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In a playoff performance described by his coach as simply "unbelievable," Robert Morris guard Velton Jones scored a career-high 29 points to lead the Colonials past Wagner 78-74 on Thursday night in the Northeast Conference quarterfinals. RMU will travel to Quinnipiac on Sunday in the semifinals.


That was the only word Robert Morris coach Andrew Toole could find to describe the magnificent night put together by his point guard, Velton Jones.

With their season on the line, Jones' heroics, which included knocking down four clutch free-throws and a pinpoint ally-oop pass to Lijah Thompson for a layup finish, helped push the No. 3 seeded Colonials over the No. 6 seeded Wagner Seahawks, 78-74, in the NEC tournament quarterfinal matchup at the Sewall Center Thursday night.

Jones finished with a career-high 29 points, while adding six assists, three rebounds and a near-perfect 9 of 10 from the charity stripe.

“He was unbelievable tonight,” said Toole. “I don't think it's crazy to say that if he doesn't play the way he did, we don't win this game. He was locked in today from warmups to the entire 40 minutes he was on the floor. Whether it was making plays, leading, talking, making shots or playing defense, he did everything tonight. That's the kind of effort you need in the playoffs to survive. He was an absolute monster tonight.”

Jones' s efforts helped Robert Morris (17-13) to a 24 of 46 (52.2%) night from the field, as well as a solid 6 of 11 (54.5%) from beyond-the-arc. Jones dropped four of those 3-pointers.

“He was terrific,” said fellow-guard Coron Williams about Jones. “He's the leader of the ship. He's our captain and he showed it. He made those free throws down the stretch, and he made shots all game for us.”

Williams helped create a great two-guard tandem for the Colonials Thursday night, as the redshirt freshman dropped 16 points, going 4 of 5 from the field, and 6 of 7 from the free-throw line.

“I just had to make my foul shots,” said Jones.  “That's all I was thinking about, just make my foul shots,

“My team depends on me to make plays and do things,” continued the redshirt sophomore. “I'm the point guard, I'm supposed to make foul shots and that's what I did today.”

As a team, Robert Morris went a solid 24 of 31 (77.4%) from the charity-stripe, which contributed mightily in to a 38-21 lead at the break for the Colonials.

Wagner (13-17), who lost to the Colonials 66-49 at the Sewall Center just a week ago, shot a dismal 5 of 18 (27.8%) from the field in the first 20 minutes, as well as committing 12 turnovers.

“I thought they played a great first half,” said Wagner head coach Dan Hurley. “We played a great second half. The difference in the game last week was (Coron) Williams, and the difference in today's game was Velton Jones.”

Jones and the Colonials watched their massive lead dropped to just four points with 15 minutes left in the second half, as a full-court man-to-man, press helped push Wagner to a 16-1 run.

Guard Tyler Murray led the Seahawks with 19 points, while guards Chris Martin and Latif Rivers each punched in 14 points.

“I had a bad pass and they went on a little run,” Jones said. “We just wanted to stay composed and do the things that we do in practice. I thought we did a good job of that later down the stretch.”

The two teams stayed neck-and-neck from the 15 minute-point to the game's end. Clutch plays from Jones, Williams and center Lijah Thompson, helped make sure that despite the score being so close, Robert Morris would never lose the lead.

RMU scored 22 of their 33 points inside the paint with just under 12 minutes in the second half. The Colonials shot 12 of 22 (54.5%) in the final 20 minutes of play, playing nearly-impeccable offense leading scorer, Karon Abraham (right ankle) being out for the remainder of the season.

“I think we've just continued to stress what's a good shot and what's not a good shot,” said Toole about the offense. “It wasn't just the shot that was open and you're shooting, but that it was a high percentage shot. We stressed that it's OK to not shoot the ball in the first 15 seconds of the shot clock. You might create a situation later in the shot clock where you have a mismatch, or the defense makes a mistake. Having them understand what a good shot is. I didn't think it would take this long, but I'm happy with how we're doing it now.”

Thompson contributed to the melee in the paint, scoring 13 points and pulling down 5 rebounds.

The Colonials topped Wagner on the glass, ripping down 23 to the Seahawks 22, including 10 on the offensive glass, leading to 11 second-chance points.

Wagner had a chance to cut the RMU lead to within one, but a Murray 3-pointer, which was defended perfectly by Jones, hit the front of the rim, with the rebound falling into Williams hands. He connected on two free-throws, giving the Colonials a 78-72 advantage with just five seconds remaining.

“It was a great win for us,” said Toole. “Anytime you can survive and advance in a playoff atmosphere, that's what you want to do.”

Velton Jones was nearly perfect in every facet of the game Thursday night.

Coach Hurley was impressed - just not surprised.

“He's a Philly tough kid. He's a really strong guard, really aggressive and very physical. He's very competitive and doesn't quit. I want to have a few players like him.”

Jones went 8 of 12 from the field, and 4 of 5 from beyond-the-arc Thursday night. He also had two steals—both from the hands of Murray—in the 34 minutes he played.

“I think Velton's one of the most competitive kids we have,” said Toole. “He cares deeply about this program. I know when we lose a game he takes it to heart and as personally as you can. I think that spurned him into playing harder, and working harder. When we first played Wagner, he did nothing. We watched the game together and neither of us said a word. I finally said to him, grade yourself. He said, 'this is exhausting. Leading is exhausting.' I said, 'but what's your alternative?' And from that point, he's always made the best decisions for himself and for his teammates.”

In their meeting last week (Feb. 26), Jones scored 14 points, going just 3 of 8 from the field.

Since the star guard's injury, Robert Morris has gone on a four-game winning streak—adding to a winning streak of seven total (three while Abraham was playing)--holding opponents to 60 points or under until tonight's 74 scored by Wagner.

The Colonials are also shooting a solid 48.5% from the floor in the absence of Abraham, who was RMU's leading scorer.

Jones is averaging a near 34 minutes-per-game, which leads the 10-man roster.

“We're playing a lot better,” said Jones. “We're following our formula and we're not breaking down as much. We're rebounding and we're hitting our shots. We work extremely hard in the off-season to get to this point. Us playing a lot of minutes, we're conditioned and our bodies are ready for that. We worked too hard in the off-season to let our rotation stop us. We're prepared for it.”

The former Duke star Bobby Hurley, who still has the Blue Devils record for most career assists, joined his brother Dan, ex-Seton Hall point guard, on the coaching staff at Wagner this year. The two have helped turn around a Wagner team that was 5-26 a year ago to a 13-17 record this season. They finished in sixth place in the final NEC standings.

“It's longer than high school,” said Dan Hurley about his first coaching year in thte collegiate ranks. “I think it was a great learning experience for me. I think coming into the situation we did, we had to push it really hard because we had to get early results. Beating Bucknell on the road early and playing St. John's to six points was a great start for us. Especially when you have to rebuild from winning five games and three in the conference (a year ago).”

The Colonials will travel to Quinnipiac to face the No. 2 seeded Bobcats (22-8) in the NEC Semifinal round on Sunday at 2 PM. The game is a rematch of the 2010 NEC tournament championship game. The other semifinal pits No. 1 seed Long Island (25-5) hosting fourth-seed Central Connecticut State (19-11) at noon.

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