Photo Credit: Jimmy Alagna (TCNJ athletics)

Kean Cougars Survive TCNJ Lion's Attack

The Kean University Cougars men’s basketball team (16-5) has proven to be exceptional this year because of their poise and mindset headed toward adversity. Wednesday, February 1st was no different for the Cougars as they won a challenging battle against the TCNJ Lions (7-14), 80-76. Initially, the Cougars appeared to be a force to be reckoned with as their defense forced the Lions to turn the ball over 11 times in the first half. Conversely, the Lions couldn’t stop them offensively nor could get they muster anything up offensively for themselves. 

In the first half, Heem Burno, who’s been battling injuries, stood out. The junior point guard recorded 11 of his 18 points along with three steals in the opening half. Oddly, the Cougars couldn’t get their leading scorer, senior C Griffin Barker, going as much as they wanted. However, Barker’s teammates picked up the slack and help guide them to victory. 

“Prior to this game, Heem‘s [Burno] been banged up, but his best game happened to be on the road against TCNJ,” Kean Cougars HC David Turco stated about Burno’s performance. “He’s a veteran for us and whenever we need a play he seems to always be in position.“

The Lions came into the game understanding, in order to have a shot to win, they’d have to contain Barker in the paint. Prior to the second half, Barker managed to get to the free-throw line three times. Although this doesn’t appear to be much, it helped put Lion’s bigs into foul trouble. That said, the defensive effort by the Lions was lackluster as a whole, however on Barker, they played fairly well. 

The Cougars as a team found opportunities to reach the rim with ease as well moving the ball efficiently. They penetrated the defense well and got the ball to the corners with players diving to the basket. Ultimately, they shot 53% from the field and allowed their shooters to receive open looks. In fact, the Cougars shot them out of the 2-3 zone by finding their open teammate.

 The momentum the Cougars built proved to be sustainable throughout the half. At halftime, the Cougars led the Lions, 43-28, however momentum began to shift rapidly. 

Kean Cougars Leave Chance for a Comeback 

In the second half, although being dominated for the majority of the game the Lions came out with vengeance. Their energy picked up big time in the second half and they quickly began to gain momentum. After going scoreless in the first half, senior shooting guard Jason Larranaga recorded 13 points in the half. Throughout the half, he began to slow down. However within the first few minutes, he went on a marathon of threes to get the Lions back into the game. 

“To be honest, I think a lot of it was lack of effort defensively, definitely a lack of communication,” TCNJ Lions HC Matt Goldsmith expressed in the post-game interview. “It was great to have the response we had, but going forward we have to get off the bus quicker.”

Although Larranga slowed down, sophomore point guard Pat Higgins took the game over finding ways to facilitate as well as contribute offensively. Higgins recorded 17 points and six assists and delivered when the Lions needed him to in the clutch, however it was too late too little. 

Conversely, the second half wasn’t as crisp as it was for the Cougars in the first. In fact, to start out the half, the Cougars struggled in transition and turned the ball over carelessly. Ultimately, they allowed several opportunities for the Lions to capitalize. 

“In the first half, I thought we did a phenomenal job but we have to play a full game,” Turco emphasized. “If not, we’ll be sent home early come playoffs.”

Nonetheless, when the Cougars needed to make plays, veteran guards Letrell West and Burno were there to help get stops and score late free throws to seal the deal. Ultimately, it was a great win for the Cougars on their home court and they have tons to build on going forward.

“I've been in these tough situations before, in fact, numerous times,” senior SG Letrell West explains in the last few seconds of the close game.

“It’s regular, and I love to see my guy [Heem Burno] hooping. He does everything for us, I expect that from a great player like him,” West continued.