|J.C. Smith Golden Bulls can taste CIAA South Division lead|
|Three-game week could end in first place|
|Published Monday, January 27, 2020 2:29 pm|
|PHOTO | TROY HULL|
|Johnson C. Smith center Augustine Aminu (center) fights for possession of the ball in the Golden Bulls’ 96-89 overtime win against Virginia Union Jan. 25 at Brayboy Gym. JCSU is a game behind first-place Winston-Salem State in the CIAA Southern Division.|
Johnson C. Smith won’t play a more important week of regular-season basketball than this one.
The Golden Bulls (12-5, 6-3 CIAA), are on a four-game win streak heading into a three-game stretch at St. Augustine’s and Winston-Salem State, capped by a home game against Elizabeth City State. A sweep would leave them atop the Southern Division three weeks ahead of the league tournament.
“It’s a big week,” JCSU coach Steve Joyner said. “It’s a week that [the players] have to make sure that they govern themselves accordingly, plus classes, and we have to get ourselves prepared for a three-game week.”
January has been the Golden Bulls’ most consistent stretch of the season with a 5-1 month that included a 96-89 overtime win against Virginia Union on Jan. 25. Not only did it keep JCSU within a game of division leader Winston-Salem State, it was redemption for a 30-point loss to the Panthers Dec. 18. Needless to say, the Golden Bulls are a different squad compared to the group run out of Richmond.
“That's a testament to the team to some degree,” Joyner said. “In the month of January, they’ve bought in, they’re trying to work better together with each other. We’re finding each other better. We're helping out on defense more and we’re becoming a unit.”
The Golden Bulls needed it against Virginia Union with leading scorer Cayse Minor (ankle) sidelined. Nenad Milenkovic scored a career-high 36 points, Austin Nelson added 12 in Minor’s stead and Chaz Gwen added nine off the bench. Most important, they pulled together in the clutch after blowing a nine-point lead late in the second half and falling behind by four at the start of overtime.
“Our team did a good job on execution,” said Milenkovic, who scored 24 points after halftime and connected on 11-of-15 shots, including 6-of-8 from 3-point range. “We know we were lacking the physicality and skillset like Casey has, so we just knew from the beginning we needed to step out and literally play because [Virginia Union] owed us one.”
Said Joyner: “We [had to] play so many young people and we got in some very difficult moments out there where I thought we reacted very emotionally, a little nervous, you might say,” Joyner said. “But that’s a part of growing up, so I just told them to embrace the journey we’re going on. You’ll see this situation again, just keep playing, keep trying. Settle in and make those free throws, break that press, you’re all right. So, they did finally do it in overtime.”
Growth is a good thing, but momentum can be fleeting in the CIAA, where the best teams historically are playing at peak efficiency in February.
“It’s just the momentum,” Milenkovic said. “You’re at home, you know you’re on the run. It doesn’t matter [that] it’s Southern Division games. We’re looking for bigger plans. We’re not just looking for the [CIAA] championship. We’re looking for the NCAA.”
Said Joyner: “No doubt, I think we are maturing, but we’re looking for consistency. That's our problem right now. We have to be ready Monday night on the road in Raleigh. If not, things could go wrong for us down there. We’d like to continue what we’re doing.”
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