Needing a win much like a fat baby needs food, Winston-Salem State got a hard-earned 63-61 win over Virginia Union on Saturday in front of another packed house at the Gaines Center.
Thanks to Jaylen Alston’s clutch free throws, Xavier Fennell’s tough-as-nails defense down the stretch and Rob Colon’s offense the Rams broke a two-game losing streak. They also did it against Terrell Leach, a former WSSU player making his one-and-only return trip to the Gaines Center.
Leach came in averaging 22 points a game, the best in the conference, but the Rams rotated defenders on him most of the game, but it was up to Fennell to stick to him like glue in the final 30 seconds.
After Alston’s free throw made it 62-61 with 21.3 seconds left Coach Jay Butler of the Panthers wanted Leach to get the final shot but he never got the ball back. Leach was at the top of the key against Fennell but instead of driving he passed to point guard Keshon Tabb to the right, but he couldn’t get the ball back to Leach so he settled on feeding it down low to Jordan Peebles who missed as Mason Harrell affected the shot.
On the miss Alston came up with the rebound, streaked down the floor and was fouled. Alston’s free throw with .6 seconds left made it 63-61.
“We had two tough losses to start the new year and our morale could have gotten low,” Coach Cleo Hill Jr. of the Rams said. “With three losses in the row it would have been tough.”
Instead, the Rams improved to 6-7 overall and 4-2 in the CIAA while the Panthers fell to 9-7 and 3-1 in conference play.
Alston had his best game of his career with 23 points and eight rebounds, and was one of six players that at one time or another who guarded Leach, a 25-year-old fifth-year senior. Leach, who is from High Point and a graduate of Southwest Guilford, played for the Rams for parts of two seasons in 2014-15 and 2015-16 but went into the working world for two years before he returned to the CIAA last season at Virginia Union.
He said he was nervous in his return to the Gaines Center, even though none his teammates he played with were still on the team.
“I had butterflies, but once I went through the layup line at the beginning I was OK,” said Leach, who went 6 of 15 shooting and had 22 points, three rebounds and an assist. “I tried to treat it like any other game and we just wanted to come in here and get the win but it didn’t happen.”
Not only did Alston play his best game but Colon, who was matched up with Leach most of the night on defense, also was outstanding. Colon scored 22 points, was 7 of 14 shooting, and had three assists and four rebounds.
The Rams trailed 56-51 with 3:49 to go when Leach, who was 8 of 12 from the free-throw line, made two free throws. But Colon’s three-point play and Alston’s three-point play with 1:29 to go tied the game at 61.
“I don’t think (Leach) forced it, but I like Colon going against him and I’ll take that every time,” Hill said about Colon matching up with Leach in man-to-man defense.
Colon said the Rams had heard plenty about Leach’s return to the Gaines Center, but the Rams were also desperate for a win.
“That gave us a little more motivation to win the game, which we did,” Colon said about Leach’s return.
With 48 seconds left Leach missed a twisting, reverse layup, and with 21.3 seconds left it was Alston who drove to the basket and was fouled. He made one of two free throws to break the tie for what turned out to be the winning free throw.
“I just wanted to try and focus up and we prepare for moments like these,” said Alston, who was 11 of 17 from the foul line. “That’s part of the game with making free throws so I knew I had to knock at least one of those down to give us the lead.”
The Rams had been suffering a crisis of confidence, but dug themselves out it and did it in front of one of the most liveliest crowds of the season.
“It’s a huge win and this is a huge motivation for our next home game and the games after that,” Alston said. “It’s a great win.”
The Rams will play their third game in five days on Monday night against Elizabeth City State at 7:30 p.m. at the Gaines Center.
In the women’s game, sixth-ranked Virginia Union, the defending CIAA champions, beat WSSU 61-49.
The Panthers (12-1, 4-0 CIAA) wre led by Jasmine Carter with 16 points and eight rebounds.
The Rams (7-9, 3-4) were led by Brandi Segars and Melody Pritchard with 11 points each.
The Rams received bad news when it was decided that Amaya Tucker, a sophomore guard who was the CIAA freshman of the year last season, will miss the rest of the season. Tucker has a leg injury and while she has played sparingly in the last three games it was decided that she would be redshirted.
Coach L’Tona Lamonte said it was a different decision, but it’s the right move for Tucker’s career moving forward.
“She’s going to redshirt,” Lamonte said. “It’s disappointing for sure, but her health is more important. We expect her to come back strong for us next season. She will rehab the injury, and we will see if she’ll eventually need surgery.”
Tucker, a Reagan High School graduate, was averaging 12.4 points a game. She played in just seven games this season, averaging 26 minutes a game. She originally was hurt on Dec. 21 against St. Aug’s and didn’t play again until Jan. 1 against USC Aiken.
“It’s tough for sure,” Tucker said after Saturday’s game, “but I do plan on working hard to come back stronger next year.”
Last season Tucker was one of the top players in the CIAA and led the Rams in scoring at 16 points per game. She shot 45 percent from the field last season and 40 percent on 3-pointers.
The Rams will play Elizabeth City State at the Gaines Center at 5:30 p.m. on Monday.
“We will need everybody step up even more knowing that Amaya and others are out so we’ll need to be ready for Monday’s game,” Lamonte said.