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Shepherd set for tough conference hoops slate

[cleeng_content id=”880047913″ description=”Read it now!” price=”0.49″ t=”article”]SHEPHERDSTOWN – Thursday night at Charleston marks the beginning of a tough stretch of five games in 10 days for the Shepherd University men’s basketball team.

Coach Justin Namolik is looking for the Rams to bring their A-game each time if Shepherd is to maintain its hold on second place in the Mountain East Conference and keep alive dreams for the program’s first postseason tournament berth since 1992.

The Rams (14-4, 9-3 Mountain East) will carry some momentum with them into their upcoming schedule as they fought back Saturday night for a 93-92 victory over West Virginia State in Shepherdstown, earning the team its fourth victory in five games, minus a tough 90-85 overtime loss two nights earlier against Fairmont State.

Shepherd senior guard Marcus Pilgrim, No. 1, pictured here earlier this season against West Liberty, sank a pair of free throws with two seconds left to lift the Rams past West Virginia State, 93-92, on Saturday at the Butcher Center in Shepherdstown.

Shepherd senior guard Marcus Pilgrim, No. 1, pictured here earlier this season against West Liberty, sank a pair of free throws with two seconds left to lift the Rams past West Virginia State, 93-92, on Saturday at the Butcher Center in Shepherdstown.

But Namolik said Thursday’s defeat to the Falcons, during which the Rams surrendered a 16-point advantage in the second half, served as a valuable learning experience for the program going forward.

“We lost that game because we got outrebounded,” Namolik said. “They kicked our butts on the boards and it was a wake up call for us. (Friday), our practice was really focused on rebounding drills and it carried over to (Saturday). We rebounded extremely well.

“Late in the game we also didn’t feel like we raised our level of play to match them (Fairmont State),” Namolik added. “We didn’t raise our energy level to where it needed to be. This time of year, we have to do that a lot more. That’s going to be a challenge for us in the last 10 games.”

Shepherd begins a two-game road stand Thursday at Charleston against an Eagles team that the Rams defeated 87-72 earlier this season in Shepherdstown. Shepherd is set to travel to Glenville State on Feb. 1 for a showdown with the Pioneers after having defeated Glenville, 98-78, late last year in Shepherdstown.

The Rams will then return home for contests against West Virginia Wesleyan (Feb. 3), Notre Dame College (Feb. 6) and Urbana (Feb. 8). Shepherd previously defeated Wesleyan and Urbana, but lost on the road at Notre Dame.

“That’s going to be extremely tough,” Namolik said. “They are going to be close games. This team understands there are no easy games. There are going to be a lot of opportunities for us to raise our level of energy and our level of play if we want to make a run in the conference.”

Through 18 games, Shepherd has been led offensively by senior guard Brantley Osborne and junior guard Austin Cunningham. Osborne is averaging 20.1 points per game, while Cunningham, who is averaging nearly 17, recently eclipsed the 1,000-point career mark with his 15 points scored Saturday against West Virginia State.

Junior forward Morgan McDonald leads the team in conference play with an average of 10.5 rebounds, while McDonald has added 16 blocked shots on the season and scored 11.9 points per contest.

Senior forward Kevin Jones, senior guard Marcus Pilgrim and freshman guard Naim Muhammad also are averaging double-digit scoring.

“They’ve been resilient all year,” Namolik said after Saturday’s victory against West Virginia State. “I think tonight I saw a glimpse of them really raising it to another level. One thing I’ve been telling the guys is that this time of year every mistake we make gets magnified.

“You’ve got to be mentally tough,” Namolik added. “I think this team has the make up to really be that way.”

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