Javier Nicolau stood all alone near the Bethel basket, hoping Reed Miller would see him.
Surrounded by a thicket of arms 75 feet away, Miller saw him.
Miller’s pass from in between defenders was perfect. So was Nicolau’s catch. So was Nicolau’s dribble, gather and stride to the rim. So was his hard, two-handed flush.
Ibu Jassey Demba yelled as he popped off the Minnesota Crookston bench, face contorted, mouth agape, arms flexed. In that moment, Jassey Demba had all the outward force and emphasis Nicolau lacked as he nonchalantly jogged back on defense.
Jassey Demba’s bulging biceps also represented a sort of cathartic release for the Golden Eagles. Up eight points with 17 seconds left, they had finally closed the door, finally done enough to send the Royals home.
But what made that release so cathartic was the time it had taken to build.
Because, really, it should have happened half an hour earlier.
Minnesota Crookston beat Division-III Bethel, 85-77, in an exhibition game last Wednesday. That seems fine, and it is, considering it was an exhibition game and exhibition games don’t matter as far as wins and losses go. But the Golden Eagles had led by as many as 23 with as little as 10 minutes left and 13 with as little as 50 seconds. They didn’t slam the door shut so much as they allowed the Royals to carefully drag it with them on their way out.
“We gotta handle those situations better,” said coach Dan Weisse.
To be fair, Minnesota Crookston’s first-half performance set the bar pretty high. It knocked down a blistering 59 percent of its shots, including nine of 15 3-pointers, on the way to a 51-31 lead. The Golden Eagles dominated inside, outside and in transition. They were the big boys supposed to beat up on the overmatched lower-division kids and they played like they were.
Slowly but surely, however, Minnesota Crookston began to ease off the gas pedal in the second half.
Part of that was for the best. It’s hard to sustain that kind of shooting for 40 minutes. And no coach wants to risk his most important players getting hurt with the score so lopsided, especially in a contest that doesn’t count towards anything. The preseason nature of the game also let Weisse experiment with more players and lineups and he took full advantage, making some changes late in the game he said he normally wouldn’t have.
“We wanted to get guys in,” Weisse said. “Different looks just to get them game experience, because we’re gonna need those guys next weekend and moving forward.”
Of note: Miller, Tyrese Shines, and Zac Olson, neither of whom have played a regular-season minute for Minnesota Crookston, came in for three-fifths of the starting lineup, leading 81-70, in the final minute. But instead of running out the clock, Shines and Olson left, five Bethel points and eight seconds later.
The way the Golden Eagles let the Royals crawl back into striking distance hinted at sloppiness more than anything. Eight turnovers, as compared to five in the first half. Six 3-pointers given up, most of them wide open. Minnesota Crookston stopped running, too, scoring just five fast-break points compared to a first-half 16.
“We were letting them get too many easy things at the rim, then it starts to open up outside and inside,” Weisse said. “I didn’t think our ball movement was as good in the second half. They took a few things away.”
Added guard Harrison Cleary: “We’ll watch the film and definitely take some things. … Definitely gotta close out games better, and that starts defensively.”
In an exhibition game, there are worse problems to have than slightly-less-than-airtight focus. That deficiency is pretty much implied in the existence of exhibition games themselves.
That being said, the Golden Eagles were dominant in every other facet. If they play like it did against Bethel, or close to it, for an entire season, the bar for what they can achieve is unprecedented — but before they can play like that for an entire season, they have to do it for 40 minutes at a time.
So if the whole point of preseason contests is to shine a light on any potential flaws before they become fatal, Wednesday’s game did its job.
“We need to keep playing like we’re down 20 when we get that lead, not stop playing hard,” said forward Malcolm Cohen. “ … So we can keep running the score and teams can’t come back last minute.”