The Binghamton men’s basketball team split its two-game stint in sunny Cancun, Mexico this past week. Playing two games in two days, the team followed a 10-point loss to Montana State with a five-point victory over CSU Northridge to capture third place in its division of the Cancun Challenge.
Following preliminary losses to George Mason and Evansville last weekend, the Bearcats were assigned to the Mayan Division of the tournament, giving them their first-round matchup with the Montana State Bobcats (4-2) on Tuesday, Nov. 21. Sophomore guard Fard Muhammad hit five threes to lead the team with 15 points, and senior forward Willie Rodriguez added 14 of his own, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the offensive flurry put forth by Montana State.
The Bearcats got off to a fast start against the Bobcats, jumping out to a 13-5 lead before even six minutes were played. The defense was stout, and the Bearcats managed to capitalize on a few Bobcat turnovers in the early minutes. Montana State would inch its way closer, but Binghamton still entered the halftime locker room with a three-point lead.
In the second half, however, things took a turn for the worse from the Bearcats’ perspective. Montana State’s offense started to catch fire, powered by the efforts of junior guard Tyler Hall. The Bearcats themselves lacked offensive contribution from their usual stars, as junior forward Thomas Bruce, who started at center, and junior guard J.C. Show combined for only nine points for the game. Bruce also ran into foul trouble as the second half progressed, forcing the backbone of Binghamton’s defense to sit out during some crucial moments.
“We got off to a bit of a slow start in the second half,” said Binghamton head coach Tommy Dempsey after the game. “We had the lead at halftime, but then we really didn’t play a good start to that second half, and I thought Montana State, at that point, was able to take the lead and gain some confidence, and we ended up chasing them through most of the second half.”
The team did manage to put together a last-ditch effort, pulling within six with under two minutes to play, but then it allowed The Bobcats an offensive rebound that led to a layup by Hall, effectively ending the game. The final score was 74-64 Montana State.
The second game, played against the CSU Northridge Matadors (1-4) the next day, followed an opposite pattern for Binghamton. It was the Matadors getting off to the hot start in the first half, building double-digit leads on two separate occasions. The Bearcats performed well enough, though, to prevent the game from slipping away, and were only down by five at the break.
“We loosened up there … midway through the first half,” Dempsey said. “I think we only had about five points through the first 10 minutes, then Fard came in and made a couple of threes … we continued to grind it out on the defensive end so the lead didn’t get away from us in the first half.”
Coming out of the halftime locker room, the Bearcats proceeded to chip away at the Matador lead immediately. Show followed a lackluster performance against Montana State with a team-leading 17 points against the Matadors, leading the Bearcats’ offensive attack.
Bruce and redshirt freshman guard Tyler Stewart spearheaded the Bearcats through a 9-0 run in the middle of the second half to take the edge. Bruce would go on to finish with 13 points and 10 boards, his third double-double on the young season. More importantly, however, the Bearcats played clean basketball, turning the ball over only twice after halftime.
BU never gave it back once they took the advantage with about 11 minutes remaining, although the Matadors came close a few times. The defense was solid when it needed to be, and the Bearcats hit key free throws down the stretch, allowing them to hang on and win the game 70-65.
“Our kids rebounded great,” Dempsey said. “I thought our spirit was really good today. We played incredibly hard, and that was the only way we were going to beat that team, if we played harder than they did.”
Overall, the Bearcats won only one of four games in the Cancun Challenge, but Dempsey is sure that the victory will give the team confidence moving forward.
“You need the positive reinforcement of wins,” Dempsey said. “Through most of this tournament we played well and didn’t have a win to show for it, so I do think, from a positive reinforcement standpoint of winning, this was a big one today.”
After this long road trip, the Bearcats return home to take on Hartwick College on Sunday, Nov. 26 at 2 p.m. in the Events Center in Vestal, New York.