EKU forward Isaiah Cozart (50) puts in a layup in Thursday's win over Queens. (Photo: EKU Athletics)
CHARLOTTE – If you ask Queens coach Grant Leonard, he makes no secret that Royals’ first season in Division 1 basketball is what he calls a “foundational” season. Unfortunately, part of the process of building a foundation means you occasionally run into skyscrapers.
Forced to play without guard Cooper Robb, Eastern Kentucky took advantage of its size. The Colonels compiled 58 points in the paint Thursday, staving off a game Queens club in an 84-80 result at Curry Arena.
“We got outrebounded by seven and they had eight second-half offensive rebounds. We needed to do a better job on the glass,” Queens coach Grant Leonard said. “14 offensive rebounds is just too much in a game like this.
“I think (Eastern Kentucky’s size) is the standard in this league,” Leonard added. “It’s not gonna be in one shot in recruiting, but over time, we’ve gotta make those adjustments to get there.”
The Royals and Colonels battled through a back-and-forth first-half affair that saw both sides struggle away from the tin while controlling the lane. The clubs combined to hit just five of their 21 tries beyond the arc in the period, with EKU taking a five-point deficit to the interval despite outscoring Queens in the paint, 24-22. The Royals snagged 20 boards in the opening stanza.
As the second half unfolded, the complexion of the game slightly changed – almost as if out of necessity. The already guard-starved Colonels saw Turner Buttry collect his third foul – and Leland Walker his fourth – and were compelled into feeding the post. The strategy worked, as 34 of the Colonels’ 48 points in the second 20 came between the lines.
“You look at the stat sheet, and we had 58 points in the paint. That’s an impressive number,” EKU coach A.W. Hamilton said after the game. “We haven’t shot the ball well, but we’ve found different ways to win. We did it without Cooper. Cooper’s our defensive anchor on the perimeter. I thought all the guys stepped up.”
Guard Tayshawn Comer was one of the players who stepped up for Hamilton’s Colonels. The freshman from Indianapolis played 32 minutes for his side in the contest, knocking down 6-of-14 tries from the field and scoring 14 points. Comer also dished six of his club’s 18 assists.
“I couldn’t take him out,” Hamilton said. “He had to fight through. Normally, I’d get him some blows. Not only is he pushing the ball for us, he’s picking up 94 feet (defensively).”
Junior wing Devontae Blanton also had a big scoring night for the Colonels, hitting 10 shots and finishing with 20 points.
“I thought Tae Tae Blanton really answered the bell,” Hamilton said. “They came out and they did a really good job on him early. He really answered the bell in the second half.”
Royals guard A.J. McKee drew the tough assignment of guarding Blanton, but seemed to relish the challenge.
“He came here as a stopper in high school and primarily not a scorer,” Leonard said. “He got Blanton to score 20 points on 21 shots. I think that’s doing his job. That’s not the most efficient night. He’s physical. He’s really good on the ball and he’s getting better off the ball. A.J.’s just really been positive about getting better every day, and I appreciate him for that.”
Even with the significant advantage in the paint, there was plenty of drama to be had. The Royals trailed by nine with 3:32 to play, but sliced the advantage as thinly as two points after two McKee free throws. As it often is with teams building a foundation, though, the Royals were just a free throw away, a series of stops away, or just a minor detail away from getting the win.
“(This game) tells us that we’re close, but it’s not enough,” Leonard said. “We have a good foundation, but we’ve gotta continue to build on it. It starts on the defensive end. I think every good program is built foundationally on defense. We’ve gotta figure out a way to get more stops in spurts. Today, we just didn’t have enough. I thought we did a good job on the first shot, but 14 offensive rebounds is just too much in a game like this.”
Hamilton, for his part, recognized the Royals' effort.
“We found a way to win,” Hamilton said. “I’m proud of our guys. This was a great win for us. They’ve got a good basketball team. Grant does a heck of a job, and Kenny Dye and McKee are two tough guards.”
Blanton, the reigning ASUN Player of the Week, guided the Colonels in the win, scoring just below his 22.5 points per game average from the week in which he earned the plaudit. Blanton tallied 20 in 33 minutes of play, hitting 10 of his 21 tries and grabbing six boards. Three players joined him in doubles. Post players Isaiah Cozart and Dardan Kapiti totaled 14 apiece on a combined 13-for-16 from the deck, with Comer adding his 14. The Colonels started the game just 5-for-14, then finished the game shooting 52.7 percent over their final 55 shots.
McKee led all scorers with 27, finishing 8-for-16 from the floor and 4-for-6 from distance. Dye and McKee combined to go 14-for-16 from the free throw line, with Dye adding 21 points on 7-for-12 from the field. Jay’Den Turner also contributed a double-double on the night, putting home 11 points and securing 10 caroms. Queens shot 41.9 percent (26-for-62) from the field and 92.3 percent (24-for-26) from the line but could manage just 4-for-20 (25 percent) from distance.
The clubs return to ASUN action Saturday. Eastern Kentucky (17-9, 10-3 ASUN) travels to Lynchburg, Va., to take on Liberty in Liberty Arena. Tip time is set for 7:00 (Eastern). Queens (16-10, 6-7) welcomes Bellarmine to Curry Arena for a 1:00 start on Saturday. Both games will be streamed via ESPN+.