This past weekend, the Emmaus Eagles traveled quite a distance to play two teams in two different states. On Friday, they faced off against AFLBS in Minnesota. Having historically been a back and forth series with them, Coach Wilkerson really felt that this year would be Emmaus' year to take the next step. "The way our guys have played (at times) against some of the competition we have faced (that will be much higher than we will face during conference play) gets me excited to see how they will play against teams such as AFLBS. Not that they are not talented, but with our guys slowly learning how to play team basketball against really good opposition, the coaching staff feels like they can really play every game like they did against UW-Richland."
After watching the Lady Eagles take down AFLBS's women, the Eagles came out determined to build an early lead. With Steven Delain in the starting lineup in front of many of his friends and family, Emmaus was able to push the pace early and score at will. However, sloppy defense, one of the things that has plagued the young Eagles' team at times this year, allowed AFLBS to stick around. With a halftime lead of seven, the coaches told the team that it would be up to them how they wanted to finish. If they played strong defense, they should walk away with a win. If they did not, there would be no guarantees.
Emmaus came out strong to start the half but so did AFLBS. Because the Eagles had been able to get up a lot of points against the man defense, AFLBS switched to a zone defense. This caused problems for the Eagles. Coupled with the lack of intensity on the defensive end, the lead dwindled and the game was soon tied. Though Emmaus' effort was never in question, a few timely mistakes led to turnovers at critical times which allowed AFLBS to take the lead. The Eagles switched to a press late in the game which caused some bad passes that led to a couple of baskets to bring them back within four with a little over a minute to play. However, the late run would be too late and AFBLS escaped with a 82-73 victory over the Eagles.
Offensively, Emmaus was very impressive as the team shot close to fifty percent on the game. Skyler Sandry was especially exceptional as he had 24 points while shooting eighty percent from the field. Caleb Ruter also had 24 points along with 11 rebounds to have his first double-double of the season.
Though disappointed, the coaches were able to see several positives from the game.
"As we have preached all season, offensively, we can play with anyone," Coach Wilkerson noted. "It is on the defensive end where we struggle. We need to find a way to get all 5 guys communicating and playing with the same level of intensity that is needed to win a ball game."
With that in mind, the Eagles headed to Wisconsin to spend the night before traveling the rest of the way in the morning to face off against Judson University in Illinois.
Like Grace Bible and Trinity, Judson was a school that was a level or two higher competition-wise than Emmaus. The mindset in scheduling them was the same as the previous games. "When Coach Cotton contacted me about playing them this year, I hesitated for a second before confirming," Coach Wilkerson explained. "However, the more games we play at this level in the first semester, the better our guys can see what it takes to compete to win a national championship. I also wanted to be able to do this for Skyler so that he could play in front of his old coach and teammates before he graduated."
Emmaus would start off slow right from tip-off and the early minutes saw Judson pushing the pace and shooting lights out from the 3 point line. Coupled with several missed layups and careless turnovers, the Eagles would find themselves down big going into the locker room. Looking at a deficit of 28, the coaches knew that something needed to change. With encouraging intensity and a slight change up defensively, Emmaus came out and looked like a different team. By breaking the press, the Eagles were able to put quick points on the board. With a ramp in the defensive intensity, they were able to make several stops and limit Judson to one shot possessions. With about 7 minutes left, Emmaus had outscored Judson by 11. A 3 pointer in the corner by Cody Nicely would have allowed them to cut the halftime deficit in half but it grazed off the rim. Eventually, Judson's experience combined with the tired legs of the Eagles would allow Judson to push the lead back above 20. When the final buzzer went off, the final score sat at 87-61. However, this was a much different feeling than the night before. The Eagles had played the best half of disciplined team basketball that they had all season. Coach Wilkerson couldn't have been prouder of their effort: "The guys had a choice when they walked on the court in the second half. They could either collapse or regroup. They showed everyone what type of team Emmaus can be when they work together and play with the right type of intensity. If we can play that way in every half this year, we will surprise a lot of teams. I am very proud of them tonight and I look forward to next week's games."Caleb Ruter led Emmaus with 23 points while freshmen Nathaniel Glidewell added 15. The Eagles play next Tuesday, November 17, when they travel to face Eureka College in Illinois. Tip-off is at 7:30.