A new era of Rams basketball kicked off Monday night with a dramatic 65-63 victory over Gardner-Webb University.
With no David Roddy or Isaiah Stevens in the lineup for the first time since Niko Medved’s first season back in 2018-19, Colorado State struggled on both ends of the floor in the first half of the 2022-23 season opener.
Offensively the Rams looked stagnant and disjointed, really never finding a consistent pace in the early stages of the night. Instead of working the ball inside and out, having guys cut and create space, oftentimes the ball seemed to stop around the perimeter, which resulted in a lot of difficult contested jump shots being thrown up by the Green & Gold.
And on the other end of the floor, CSU allowed Gardner-Webb to penetrate the paint and score down low with ease — a big reason why they were able to establish an 11 point halftime lead despite not looking all that impressive as jump shooters themselves.
Fortunately for the Ram faithful, while things may not have started all that great, CSU came out in the second half with a different level of intensity on defense. After trailing by as much as 13 in the first half, the Rams came out and put the clamps on the Running Bulldogs, holding them to just 10 points over the first 13 minutes of the second half.
That attention to detail and consistent effort on the defensive end was ultimately what turned the game around for CSU. After trailing for close to 30 minutes, the Rams were able to take their first lead of the night with a transition three from Division III transfer Joe Palmer with just over 10 minutes left to play. And from there the Rams were able to build their own lead up to as large as 11 in the final minutes of action, however, it was not all smooth sailing to the finish line.
After seemingly having the game in hand, an inexperienced Rams group allowed Gardner-Webb to come all the way back in the final three and a half minutes. What’s worse, Jalen Lake got called for a foul on the game-tying 3 point attempt and they evened things at 63 apiece at the free throw line instead of having to make a play.
It would not have been surprising to see CSU crumble after having a highly questionable call go against them in such an intense moment, especially while missing their starting point guard, the guy they typically go to in crunch time. But that’s when Isaiah Rivera decided that he had no interest in going to overtime. The junior guard advanced the ball past mid-court, used a crossover to create space and proceeded to drill the game-winning jump shot in front of a hyped up home crowd.
In total Rivera finished with 11 points in a game-high 36 minutes of action. He also pulled down a team-high seven rebounds, dished out a couple of assists and did a nice job of valuing possessions and not trying to force too much.
Leading the home squad in scoring was veteran guard John Tonje. The senior from Omaha, NE, finished with a game-high 16 points and hit three of his five attempts from 3-point range in his first start of the year.
With Roddy no longer in the picture and Stevens out for an extended period of time, the Rams are going to need big seasons from Rivera and Tonje, so it was great to see them find a way to get it done on a night where everything did not come easy for CSU.
It was also great to see the boost provided by the true freshman guard, Tavi Jackson. The 6-foot-2 freshman out of Las Vegas produced a major spark for CSU off the bench by coming in and immediately creating opportunities for both himself and his teammates. He showed the confidence to knock down open shots and drive to the hoop as well. For a guy playing in his first collegiate action, the moment did not appear to be too big for the young guard at all.
Ultimately there is much to work on for this group, the performance was far from perfect in this one. What’s really encouraging though is that they showed they are capable of grinding out a gritty victory. Going through that type of game is only going to benefit this young team as they try to get their feet underneath them without the team leader on the floor.
“I’m really proud of our guys for finding a way to win tonight,” Medved said. “I knew it was going to be a tough game, and give Gardner-Webb a lot of credit.”
The Rams (1-0) will look to move to 2-0 on the young season on Friday night. Tipoff against Southeast Louisiana is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. MT at Moby Arena.