If there were any questions remaining about Tulane’s youthful backcourt, they were emphatically answered Saturday afternoon.
The Green Wave (3-0), spurred by 25 points each from guards Jonathan Stark and Louis Dabney, overcame a 19-point, second-half deficit to defeat Loyola-Chicago 65-59 at Devlin Fieldhouse.
A 24-8 run over the game’s final seven minutes provided Tulane coach Ed Conroy with a glimpse of his team’s potential in tight situations. It was a welcome sign to him and the 1,552 Green Wave fans who witnessed the Green Wave wiggle out of its first tough spot without former point guard Ricky Tarrant, who transferred to Alabama in the offseason.
“Anybody who saw the game saw our struggles and saw us look like a really young basketball team,” Conroy said. “We were inexperienced, and were on our heels a bit, but there weren’t that many adjustments to make. We just had to play together as a team.
“I couldn’t be happier with this group, because there is a closeness about them. And I don’t think you pull out a lot of games like that, especially early in the season, unless there’s a togetherness and a toughness. And there are some incredibly tough guys on our team.”
Whether it be toughness, poise or simply endurance, Dabney and Stark powered the Green Wave past the Ramblers (1-2) when they were needed most. Not only did the pair play all but two minutes (Stark never came off the floor, and Dabney rested a brief spell in the first half), but they scored 19 of Tulane’s final 24 points.
With less than three minutes remaining, Dabney’s 3-pointer forced the game’s first tie since the opening minute. And Stark’s 3-pointer from the top of the key as the shot clock expired earned Tulane its first lead since it pulled ahead 3-2.
Dabney then connected on a floater in the lane to put Tulane up 60-55 and threw a cross-court strike to Cameron Reynolds while he was streaking toward the basket in the final minute, resulting in a layup and free throw to seal the victory.
“I see (Dabney and Stark) do this every day,” junior guard Jay Hook said. “They work hard every day. I’m not surprised, because they do that all of the time. If somebody goes down, they pick them right back up. So to see Lou and Jonathan perform like that was not a surprise.”
And the pair had plenty to pick up in the second half.
Tulane failed to record an assist in the opening half, allowing Loyola defenders to clog passing lanes keep the perimeter tightly defended. It relegated Tulane’s offense, which is typically heavy on ball movement and rotation, to become reliant on individual dribble-drives to the basket and free throws, resulting in 24 percent shooting.
By forcing the Green Wave away from its strength, Loyola was able to force nine turnovers, including five steals. Meanwhile, Loyola hammered Tulane in the paint, scoring 16 points, mostly on a series of backdoor cuts that infuriated Conroy, who said it forced him to shorten his rotation.
But possibly most damaging to the Green Wave in its first-half morass was losing guard Jay Hook to early foul trouble. The junior entered the game averaging 21 points and 11 rebounds but picked up two quick fouls by the eight-minute mark, and after a brief respite, was whistled for a third with 2:34 remaining in the half.
Hook eventually fouled out after playing just 21 minutes, but Tulane was able to right the ship offensively by repeatedly driving to the basket and forcing Loyola to provide additional defenders in the paint. Tulane finished shooting 65.4 percent from the field in the second half, thanks in large part to Stark, who converted six of seven attempts during the stretch.
“At first we were just playing too fast,” Dabney said. “Those same drives were there, but we weren’t seeing them because we were in one mode and that was to kind of play one-on-one basketball. But once we started playing as a team and settled down and ran our stuff, we were good to go.”
Now the Green Wave will take its undefeated record into its opening game of the Cure UCD Classic against Division II Cedarville in Devlin Fieldhouse. It’s another chance for Tulane to prove it can positively answer questions as a team stocked with eight freshmen.
“I think this year’s team is a lot different,” Dabney said. “I’m not taking anything away from the guys who have been here in the past. But I feel like this team is a lot more ‘we’ than ‘me’ and with guys like Jay Hook and Jonathan Stark, we are all buying in.”