Coaches like to tell their teams that the next basketball game, is the biggest one of our season. Appalachian’s game against Elon will be the biggest game to date, as a win or loss in either direction has big implications as far as tournament seeding and bye possibilities. Elon holds a 2.5 game lead over Appalachian and if the Mountaineers could cut the lead to 1.5 games, the pressure would be on Elon, as Appalachian would also hold the tiebreaker over Elon, going 2-0 against the Phoenix this season. A loss would all but end Appalachian’s chances to win the North Division. Who would have thought the Mountaineers would be in this position after the way they started the season?
Elon is fresh off of beating Furman by four points last Saturday. Elon’s big man, Lucas Troutman hurt his ankle in the win, only playing five minutes and is considered questionable for Thursday. Troutman was the team’s leading scorer at 15.1 points per game. Troutman scored fourteen against Appalachian earlier this season. Sharp shooter Jack Isenbarger is putting up 14.1 points per game, but only scored nine points in the first meeting. Isengarger has only been held to single digit scoring seven times this season. Tab Hamilton did a great job defensively against Isenbarger in the first game.
The defensive end is where Appalachian is going to have to win this game. Elon has shot 50% or better only four times this season, winning every games except against Appalachian. After losing to Appalachian, Elon secured seven straight wins, but has cooled off of late, losing by ten at Wofford prior to their win over Furman. The key will be keeping Elon from shooting threes, as three players have hit 40 or more threes this season. Samson Tanner has also been a huge spark plug for Elon lately. Tanner did not score against Appalachian in the first game, but has scored 82 points in his last nine games. Tanner averaged 5.4 points prior to going scoreless against Appalachian, but has averaged 9.1 points per game in his last nine games. Elon is 0-3 this season when Tanner does not score.
Appalachian only has three road wins this season, two in conference play. Last year, Elon barnstormed the Mountaineers in Burlington. Alumni Gym is not exactly what I would call a tough place to play, but it is very cozy and their students are annoying to listen to. Nathan Healy and Tevin Baskin both had big games the last time out against Elon as they forced Lucas Troutman into four fouls and only 25 minutes played. The Apps must attack the rim and challenge Elon in the paint. Appalachian does not have what it takes to get into a jump shooting contest against Elon.
10:14 AM UPDATE: Elon is currently favored by 8.5 points. This line is going to move today at some point, and I don’t think we will see 9. I think this will settle at 8. I am leaning Elon tonight, based on last year’s game.
6:56 PM UPDATE: Elon has to cover nine big ones. I just don’t think they will do it. I think it’s possible, but this game means too much for Appalachian to come out flat. One more time for the Apps.
It happened again. Appalachian led by seven points with 4:23 to play in the second half. From that point on, Elon outscored Appalachian 14-4 to all but clinch a first round bye in the SoCon tournament. Appalachian now must chase down Western Carolina, who defeated UNCG 70-68. In fact, Appalachian fell from second place to fourth in the North. That is how fragile the standings in the division are right now. Every win is big, and every loss is devastating. If App is not careful, a loss to Greensboro on Sunday could put them in fifth place, with every other team in the North playing a winnable game.
Elon started the game quickly and ran out to an early lead, but Appalachian countered with a 13-4 run in the first half to take a 21-14 lead. Elon battled back to tie the game at 23 thanks to Jack Isenbarger scoring four points before Appalachian called a timeout. Isenbarger would hit a three with just under a minute left in the first half to give Elon a 31-26 lead at halftime. Appalachian only scored 5 points in the last 7:47 of the first half. If you add the last few moments of each half together, Appalachian combined to score 9 points in the final twelve minutes and change of each half.
The game was one where several Mountaineer players did not show up, and this team cannot afford not to have everyone playing well and expect to win. Tab Hamilton was scoreless. Mike Neal was 3/10. Nathan Healy was in borderline foul trouble parts of the game and could not play as aggressive as he would like to. The team shot under 40% for the game, and only hit 3/16 from behind the arc. The real difference, App recorded seven assists, while Elon assisted on fourteen of their twenty-two made baskets.
Appalachian did manage to cover the spread, which would have been much sweeter if they could have held on for the win. They move to 13-7 on the year while our picks lag behind one game, as has been the case the entire season. Greensboro will bring a challenge, as Appalachian can be better than UNCG when they want to be, but the Spartans have one of the best one-two punches in the conference in Armstrong and Simpkins. Should be an interesting line tomorrow.