SALISBURY— It’s way too soon to panic, but all of a sudden the Livingstone men’s basketball team looks very ordinary. At least it did Saturday night at Trent Gym, where the Blue Bears dropped their second consecutive CIAA decision and fell 85-74 to Virginia State.
“This game does not break our season,” coach James Stinson said after sequestering his team in the locker room for more than 30 minutes after the loss. “I just told them we need to stop ourselves from falling. We have to correct all the things we’re doing wrong.”
Livingstone (11-3, 3-2) barely resembled the team that recently enjoyed an eight-game winning streak, but hey, even Sinatra had to clear his throat now and then.
“We’re still the same team that went on the road and beat all those teams,” senior forward Tyler Johnson insisted. “And normally we’re able to overcome deficits and shortcomings, but tonight it just didn’t happen.”
What happened was a bit surprising. Visiting VSU (7-7, 2-3) seemed overmatched in the early going and LC — behind a trio of Jody Hill 3-pointers — jumped to a 17-6 lead in the first seven minutes.
“Then we locked in on defense,” said winning coach Darryl Jacobs. “And brought in James Vann. Right away we had more energy and he started hitting big shots.”
Vann, a six-foot sophomore guard from Norfolk, provided instant offense for the Trojans. Within 90 seconds he’s scored on a putback, drained the first of his three 3-balls and pulled the guests within 17-13.
“That’s my role — come off the bench and provide energy,,” Vann said after shooting 6-for-9 from the floor and pacing all scorers with a career-high 22 points. “Coach tells me to get a feel for the get, let it come to me and don’t get too anxious.”
Vann’s entry into the game initiated Livingstone’s downfall. VSU dominated the rest of the first half, using a 14-0 scoring spurt to build a 33-22 lead. At the same time it limited the Blue Bears to four free throws — and no baskets — over a span that lasted more than 10-and-a-half minutes.
“We just couldn’t figure it out,” junior Mark Thomas, LC’s leading scorer this season, said after a Jekyll-and-Hyde performance. “We got lost out there a little bit and had to gather ourselves.”
Livingstone trailed 41-26 at the break.
“Down by 15, that was a surprise,” Stinson acknowledged. “We made mistakes. They made us make mistakes and we started missing shots. We still got some open looks but just missed the shots.”
Things got worse before they got better in the second half. Virginia State, which converted 10 of 19 three-point attempts, led by as much as 71-51 when DeVonte Williams scored on a fastbreak layup with 5:46 remaining. The Trojans’ final basket of the night came when 6-9 forward Kenny Mitchell drove the left baseline for a layup with 4:33 to go.
“We started to play not-to-win,” Jacobs said afterward. “We knew the clock was our enemy at that point. There was still a lot of time left but we got complacent out there.”
Vann was asked if the Trojans relaxed after the lead ballooned to 20. “Actually, we did,” he said. “We knew we had taken their heart, but we still had to take it with us. We did that by digging in.”
Livingstone’s final push ended without fanfare in the final minute, when Thomas scored on a runaway layup to make it an eight-point game with a minute to go. VSU converted 10 of 12 free throws in the waning 1:14 to cement the outcome.
“Our guys, they don’t expect to lose,” Stinson said. “And that’s a good thing. This was just another opportunity to win.”
NOTES: Thomas led LC with 18 points — all in the second half.... Hill (16), Johnson (14) and Anthony Welch (10) also scored in double figures.
VIRGINIA STATE (85) — Vann 22, Mitchell 19, Bynum 17, Harris 7, Porter 5, Awosanya 4, Grier 3, Williams 3, Jackson 3, Wells 2.
LIVINGSTONE (74) — Thomas 18, Hill 16, Johnson 14, A.Welch 10, Espinoza 6, Turner 4, King 4, Ford-Bey 2, D.Welch, Flint, Bailey, Sanders.
Virgina State 41 44 — 85
Livingstone 26 48 — 74