GEORGETOWN, Texas – Standing alone at the free-throw line, junior forward Andrew Puhl calmly sank two consecutive shots in the final 10 seconds to ice the game and give the Southwestern University Pirates men's basketball team a 98-91 home victory over the Johnson & Wales University (JWU) Wildcats.
The Wildcats have been something of a surprise this season, jumping out to a 9-2 record and winning their first two Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference (SCAC) games after being projected to finish ninth in the conference in the coaches' preseason polls.
Puhl has been no less a pleasant discovery, becoming an integral part of the Pirates' rotation this year and being selected by his peers as a team captain after averaging only 5.5 minutes per game last season.
Earning his first start of the season, Puhl responded with a double-double, leading the team in scoring and rebounding with a career-high 18 points (on 6-for-9 shooting) and 10 rebounds while also contributing three assists.
Southwestern and JWU provided an interesting contrast of styles. The Wildcats operated with a straight forward approach built around star guard Jontrell Herman's speed and backcourt mate Andrew Romero III's crafty ball handling. The Pirates varied their approach in a more balanced system, switching between spread pick and rolls for Kyle Howard and Joel Martinez, as well as a series of off-ball screens and cuts triggered by center Jake Holmes' playmaking from the elbow and top of the key.
The Pirates were actually able to corral Herman—who leads the SCAC in scoring with 24.9 points per game—in the first half. Southwestern opted out of its usual full-court pressure in favor of getting back on defense and forcing Herman to work in the half court.
Herman struggled with the approach, shooting 1-for-7 in the half as the Pirates' defense rotated on a string, helping off less viable threats to prevent clear lanes to the rim.
With the extra attention on Herman, Romero was able to operate one-on-one, getting to the rim for 15 first-half points on 6-for-11 shooting. Though Romero was productive, his 15 points also required a lot of resources, bleeding clock with his dribble and not producing a single assist in the half as the Wildcats shot 46.2 percent but only 1-for-8 from the 3-point line.
The Pirates got 12 points on 5-for-8 shooting from Brandon Alexander, coming off a series of curls and methodically attacking closeouts, using his strong frame to create space in the paint for his soft jumper.
Southwestern shot 51.5 percent from the field, assisting on nine of their 17 made field goals and outrebounded JWU 19-10 to take a 42-34 lead at the break.
The second half was a different story for the Pirates' defense as Herman shook loose for 24 of his 28 points, driving through a thicket of defenders to get to the rim and free-throw line, where he shot 11-for-11 after halftime.
JWU shot 56.3 percent in the second half and 18-for-20 from the free-throw line, closing the gap to within a bucket or two throughout the final 20 minutes.
But for every run the Wildcats made, Puhl seemed to have an answer, hitting 3-pointers on the move out of beautifully executed sets or from a standstill near the end of a shot clock on broken plays.
He was a perfect 5-for-5 from the floor in the second half, hitting all three of his 3-pointers and 3-for-4 from the free-throw line to stave off JWU.
Jake Holmes scored nine of his 11 points in the second half, ducking in for quick-hitters under the rim or using his faceup game to attack the basket from the elbow. More importantly, he helped keep the Pirates' offense in flow from his perch at either elbow, finding backdoor cutters, open shooters, or flowing from those actions into dribble handoffs and pick-and-rolls.
Kyle Howard scored 14 points, wrong-footing defenders with a series of nasty hesitation dribbles to score 10 points in the second half.
Ryan Wheeler added 16 points, snaking his way into the lane and hitting 2-for-4 from deep as all five starters finished in double figures.
Trenton Garrett returned from injury, scoring six points and grabbing six rebounds while blocking one shot and altering several others off the bench.
Herman finished with 28 points and five assists to lead JWU and Romero had 23 points on 9-for-19 shooting. Bailey Stephens had 10 points and King Grant-Perry and Kelsey Williams each scored 11.
With the win, the Pirates improve to 4-5 on the season and 1-0 in conference play. Southwestern University will host Colorado College tomorrow at 3:00 p.m.