Defensive struggles cost the Grizzlies on the road

The 2018-19 Grizzly Basketball team is standing by row in the West Plains Civic Center arena.
The 2018-19 Grizzly Basketball team at Missouri State University-West Plains includes, front row from left, Eric Lovett, Eric Stafford, Ben Gory, Dravon Clayborn, Jodhe Campbell, D’Andre Vilmar, Darius Carter. Second row: Kristian Andrievski, Da’Vantre Vitor, Assistant Coach Ken Moses, Head Coach Chris Popp, Montel Stewart, Evan White, Kobe Hollomon. Third row: Sam Wallin, Niekie Thomas, Dontell Brown, Henri Langton, Sardaar Calhoun, Alex Peterson, Burone Edwards and Houston Johnson. (Missouri State-West Plains Photo)

WEST PLAINS, Mo. –The 16th-ranked Missouri State University-West Plains Grizzlies knew they had their work cut out for them this past weekend.

They traveled to Arkansas City, Kansas, to face a tough Cowley College team and 4th-ranked Coffeyville Community College on the road in the Cowley College Classic. Unfortunately, the challenge proved to be too much as the Grizzlies dropped both games and now sit at 4-3.

"I felt like we were due to take a hit. Lately, we've had the feeling of a team that was doing just enough to win and felt comfortable with the way things were," Grizzly Basketball Head Coach Chris Popp said. "That being said, I certainly didn't see this kind of performance coming on back-to-back nights."

The Grizzlies' struggles began from the tip Friday as a missed lay-up on the first possession led to the first of 12 three-pointers for Cowley College.

"Cowley is a team that comes at you. Very tough and aggressive," Popp said. "That should have been a game where we thrived. What they do offensively and defensively should work in our favor.

"But our issues had nothing to do with structure," he added. "The home team had an aggressive attack mentality, came out fired up, and we did not."

Cowley built its lead in the first four minutes and never let up, taking a 16-point difference into the half and keeping a 14- to 20-point cushion throughout.

The Tigers kept the Grizzlies at arm's length shooting 45 percent from the floor and a scorching 50 percent from behind the three-point line. The Grizzlies also were out-rebounded 50-37, with the Tigers collecting 15 offensive rebounds.

"We won't win many ballgames if we allow teams to continue to torch us from the three. We will make some minor changes that will help, but our guys have to begin taking it personally on the defensive end," Popp said.

Defense was clearly an issue as the Grizzlies allowed a season high of 94 points in regulation, with the final score being 94-76.

The Grizzlies were led on the offensive end by freshman guard Sardaar Calhoun with 20 points on seven of 10 shooting. Freshman point guard Dravon Claiborne and sophomore forwards Burone Edwards and Dontell Brown all followed with 11 points each.

Saturday seemed to be a continuation of Friday. Once again, 3-pointers led to an early lead that Coffeyville never relinquished.

"Quite honestly, I thought our energy and focus was not bad to start the game," Popp said. "Our first 4-5 offensive possessions were solid and produced an open lay-up and wide open shots. Unfortunately, none of those shots fell.

"At the same time, we guarded solidly, with the result being Coffeyville hitting a couple tough shots and a couple threes," the coach added. "Next thing you know, I look up and we are down 12-0.

I felt like we could recover if our shots fell and we continued to be solid on defense and their shots missed. That didn't happen," Popp said.

Instead, the Red Ravens would use the momentum to build on their lead, entering the break with a 20-point advantage.

"We are losing in the toughness areas. That is the frustrating part," Popp explained. "Rebounding, lose balls, close-outs, transition defense… our guys execute and try to do the right thing, be in the right place and so on. It takes more than that to win basketball games. Most of the time, the toughest team wins.

"I had one of my former bosses at the game who hit the nail on the head. He pointed out that it seemed like they got 90 percent of the 50/50 balls. That can't happen if you want to win on the road," he added.

The second half saw some changes as the Grizzlies started a completely new lineup of sophomores Johde Campbell and Evan White and freshmen Darius Carter, Houston Johnson and Alex Peterson.

"I made a decision, not to give up on the game, but to give us the best chance by playing our toughest lineup and making some things clear to our players," Popp said. "What we were doing was not good enough and is not going to continue."

The changes seemed to make a difference initially as the Grizzlies showed life early, cutting the lead to 14; however, Coffeyville was able to change the tide and swing momentum back. The Red Ravens' lead grew to 30 before the game ended as a 95-68 loss for the Grizzlies.

Johnson paced the Grizzlies on the scoreboard with 14 points, and Campbell added 13. Edwards led on the glass with nine rebounds.

"The positives were in the play of the bench," Popp said. "Some players were given opportunities and took advantage. It is great to see Johde continue to look more and more comfortable. He handled pressure against as good of a team as we will see. Houston has been solid from day one but really showed up offensively."

The Grizzlies will have a chance to bounce back this weekend at home as they host Murray State College Friday at 7 p.m. and Southwest Tennessee Community College on Saturday at 6 p.m. Those games will be a part of the Mega Motorsports Thanksgiving Classic at the West Plains Civic Center. Johnson County Community College will round out the four teams.

"Murray really pushed us at their place a couple weeks ago and Southwest Tennessee is a long athletic group. These will be two more tough games," Popp said. "I'm looking for my team to respond with a sense of urgency, a drive and focus to get better. These games and our approach throughout the week will tell me a lot about my team."

For more information about the Grizzly Basketball program, visit www.msuwpgrizzlies.com or call 417-255-7991.

For complete statistics of the Grizzlies' games this season, visit http://www.njcaa.org/sports/mbkb/2018-19/div1/teams/MissouriStateUniversityWestPlains.

Missouri State University-West Plains empowers students to achieve personal success and to enrich their local and global communities by providing accessible, affordable and quality educational opportunities. Missouri State-West Plains offers associate degrees and credit and non-credit courses, and serves as a delivery site for bachelor's and master's degrees offered by Missouri State University in Springfield.