By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
BLUEFIELD, Va. —
No. 3 in the country had to work to stay there.
Bluefield College held Pikeville to its second lowest regular season scoring output of the season, but the third ranked NAIA team in America was able to make a few plays down the stretch to survive for a thrilling 80-77 Mid-South Conference win over the Bears on a snowy Thursday night at the Dome Gymnasium.
Pikeville (12-1, 3-0), which won the NAIA national title in 2011, entered with seven Division I transfers, and had reached the century mark in six games this season, including its previous four outings prior to arriving in Bluefield.
The 80 points scored by the Bears was just one fewer than the 79 the Bears scored in a win over Campbellsville. They were held to 61 in an exhibition game at defending NCAA champion Louisville.
“Our guys played hard,” Bluefield head coach Richard Morgan said. “They came out and did what I asked them to do, coming back off the break, that is a good start for us.”
Bluefield (6-3, 1-2) was playing just its second game since Dec. 15, having lost an exhibition with Division I Appalachian State on Monday night.
“I think we can build on this and get better,” Morgan said. “There were a lot of mental mistakes though, which you can kind of attribute to the time off. Two weeks off is kind of tough on our guys.”
Kearston Marion led Bluefield with 17 points and four assists, while Josh Nesbit added 17 points and a team-high seven rebounds. Alex Lubsey had 14 points, including a pair of highlight reel dunks, while Kyle Grisby added 10 points.
The Rams outrebounded the taller Bears 39-34, and forced 18 turnovers.
Pikeville had four players in double figures, led by Keala King, formerly of Long Beach State) with 21 points. Kenny Manigault (Wichita State) added 18 points, Bruce Reed (Morehead State) tossed in 15 and Josh Whitaker canned 11. Elisha Justice, a former Mr. Basketball in Kentucky, and a transfer from Louisville, had five points and three assists.
Some may not have expected just a close call for one of the nation’s best team, but it didn’t surprise Morgan.
“I don’t think they did (expect it), but I think they knew we were pretty tough,” Morgan said. “They think they knew they had to come out and play hard and I think that is why the game was so low scoring.
“Then I look back at other tapes and it has never been a high scoring game so I think our guys play well with them. We match up well with them and they gave a great effort.”
The entertaining back and forth contest featured 10 ties and nine lead changes, with Bluefield taking a 37-35 lead at the break. The Rams still led 68-66 with 5:17 to play, but four misses from point blank range was followed by four free throws from former Xavier product Chris Cantino.
He made two technical free throws when newcomer Melvin Nequan’s name was left out of the scorebook, and two more following a foul to pull the Bears ahead to stay 70-68 with 5:20 to go. The 6-foot-9 Nequan had three points and four rebounds in his Dome Gymnasium debut.
“I don’t know where that came from, but we will get that cleaned up,” said Morgan, of the scorebook discrepancy. “With him being the first time back home, they didn’t see his name on there, it was just a mistake.”
Reed followed with a drive to the hoop, and Whitaker stole an inbounds pass and made a layup for the 74-68 lead. A 3 by Kyle Grisby cut the lead to 3, but King drove to the basket to make it 76-71.
Bluefield’s own Division I transfer, Eastern Illinois product Lubsey, followed with a pair of dynamic dunks to keep the Rams within two. Single free throws by Reed and King pushed the Bears up 78-75, but Bluefield pulled within one at 78-77 on two charity tosses by Josh Nesbit.
Manigault followed with two free throws with 10 seconds on the clock.
Bluefield had an opportunity to force overtime, but Kearsten Marion’s 3-point attempt bounced around the rim, but refused to drop as time expired.
Up next for the Rams will be a visit to West Virginia Tech on Saturday, followed by two Mid-South Conference home tilts next week with Cumberland and Lindsey Wilson.
“I think overall our guys are heading in the right direction,” Morgan said. “All we need to do now is just mold them and shape them back into the shape they were in before they took off for their break.
“Once we do that I think we have got pieces that we can play. Melvin didn’t really do what I thought he would tonight, but I think we will be OK.”
—Contact Brian Woodson at email@example.com