By Garrett Cote
AMHERST — Down by one with under 20 seconds remaining and possession of the ball, Springfield needed one more big shot if they wanted to knock off Amherst for the first time since 2016.
Fifth-year senior Daryl Costa had been the man all night long, pouring in 22 points on 8-9 shooting in his first game back from an ankle injury. There was no doubt the ball was going to find him.
As first-year guard John Paulino drove baseline, he kicked the ball to junior Zeke Blauner in the corner, who then found Costa open on the wing. A pump fake sent Costa’s initial defender flying by, forcing Blauner’s defender to step up.
Costa quickly made the extra pass to Blauner — who hit a three-pointer from the exact same spot one possession prior. In one motion, Blauner turned and let fly a three.
Nothing but the bottom to put the Pride up 71-69 with 15 seconds left.
ZEKE BLAUNER FOR THE WIN!
The sophomore guard drills a three pointer to put the Pride ahead by two, a lead they would not squander.
— Garrett Cote (@garrett_cote) December 7, 2022
Springfield would remain ahead the rest of the way, defeating the Mammoths 73-70 for its first true road victory of the season.
“We’ve been really preaching about taking good shots, and (assistant) coach Sean Martin has been saying the past couple days to pass up a good shot for a great shot, and that’s what I did,” Costa said. “They were probably expecting me to shoot it because I had the hot hand for a little bit, but I found the open man, and Zeke was ready to hit it.”
The first half featured more of the woes that were haunting Springfield in its first handful of games — turnovers, stagnant offense and miscommunications on defense. This led to a 42-27 deficit heading into the break.
Amherst’s lead grew to 17 before the Pride started chipping away piece by piece.
“I challenged them at halftime,” head coach Mike McClendon said. “I knew they were capable of more, they just needed to show it. When we’re engaged and locked in, we can be a great defensive team.”
McClendon turned to an unfamiliar face to instill energy and effort into his team in the second half. Jack Meagher, a sophomore who has played sparing minutes in the early going of the season, logged 11 points and a team-high nine rebounds while adding three assists and a steal.
Meagher’s spark off the bench, along with the difficult shot making of Costa, is exactly what got the Pride back into the game.
“He earned it at practice,” McClendon said of Meagher. “We had an honest discussion about what he can do to be better, and he did the work, fixed his mistakes, and earned his time tonight. He really showed that he’s capable.”
Alongside Meagher in the front court was Curtiss Blische (14 points and five rebounds). Despite only being six-foot-four and six-foot-six respectively, battling against Amherst’s three bigs who were all over six-foot-ten, Meagher and Blische more than held their own down low.
“We’re a shorter team, so we have no choice but to battle,” Blische said. “We aren’t going to out rebound them, but we can get lower than them and push them out of the way. You just have to want it more. That’s all it is.”
After the Pride scraped their way back to within five (67-62) with a minute and change remaining, they were still a few plays out from having a chance at stealing the win.
Sitting wide open in the corner on the ensuing offensive possession was none other than Meagher. He received the ball with confidence and drained a three to cut the Mammoths lead to two. Blauner stuck the aforementioned next two threes to give the Pride their first lead of the game with 15.7 seconds left.
Springfield’s defense held on on the next possession, Meagher secured a rebound and was fouled. He had a chance to seal it with two makes at the line — which he buried both.
The win for McClendon was the best of both worlds. Yes, they won and beat a terrific opponent on the road, but they also made plenty of mistakes so he can keep his team hungry for improvement.
“Anytime we get the chance to play against a NESCAC team, it should elevate their spirits,” McClendon said. “I think they didn’t realize the moment they were in, they should embrace it and appreciate it. I was happy we were able to win, but we still got plenty to work on.”
Costa played 23 minutes off the bench for the Pride, and scored 22 points to go along with three assists and three steals. After knocking down a fadeaway midrange jumper, he shook his head as he trotted back on defense and yelled, “I’M BACK.”
He most certainly is, and McClendon most certainly has found a fight within this team.
Springfield returns to action on Saturday, when they travel to take on Williams for its third consecutive game against a NESCAC opponent.