Defensive switch makes difference in second half
Playing halfcourt basketball wasn't working for Howard against Liberty on Saturday afternoon. So with the Bison down by seven points at halftime to the Big South Conference school, coach Kevin Nickelberry kicked the tempo up a notch.
Switching from man-to-man defense to a trapping 3-2 zone, Howard held Liberty without a field goal for the first 8:37 of the second half on its way to a 60-53 victory at Burr Gymnasium.
After running its offense unfettered in the first half, Liberty (1-9) had no answer for the trapping pressure of Howard (3-8). Double-teaming the Flames on the wings and in the corners, the Bison forced eight turnovers in the first eight minutes of the second half, generating fast-break opportunities.
"We saw on film that they struggled against Morgan [State] and Georgia State against the zone," Nickelberry said. "We just wanted to use our length against them. They were quicker than us. We wanted to give them a different look and cut down their 3s."
Howard seized the lead on a midcourt steal by sophomore Simuel Frazier (12 points, six assists) and a pass to senior Tre Lee (four points, three assists) for a layup. Seconds later, senior Calvin Thompson (13 points, six rebounds) stole the ball and raced for a breakaway lay-in. After a subpar first half, the quicker pace was to the liking of Thompson, who scored 11 of his points after intermission and capped off the key 15-1 run with a three-point-play.
Liberty eventually figured out the zone, getting two 3-pointers from junior guard Casey Roberts (11 points) and one each from junior guards Davon Marshall (13 points) and John Caleb Sanders (seven points, four assists).
When Sanders stood at the line with 44 seconds left to shoot three free throws, he had a chance to tie the game. Sanders made two to pull the Flames within 54-53, but that was as close as Liberty would come.
Senior forward Mike Phillips (19 points, eight rebounds) made three of four free throws in the final 35 seconds, including the two that clinched it with nine seconds to go, putting Howard up 58-53.
It was a tale of two halves. In the first, Liberty thrived behind 6-9 forward Tomasz Gielo (eight points, seven rebounds), but after intermission the Flames couldn't get him the ball inside against the extended zone of the Bison.
"We showed some grit, and we showed some intensity, and we made the plays when we needed them," Nickelberry said. "This was a big one for us. We really needed it."
It was another strong game for Phillips, who kept the Bison close in the first half, scoring 12 points on midrange jumpers and layups. The senior has been a key for the Bison. When he scores 19 or more points, Howard is 3-1.