Perhaps the greatest season opener of the past decade was the auspicious debut of Charles Ramsey, defeating a Leon Powe-less Cal Bear team coached by legendary (by EMU standards) former coach, Ben Braun. A bright moment indeed, but under Ramsey the Eagles fell short of any real success.
Rob Murphy’s opening night didn’t offer the same potential for glory as dueling with a Pac-12 foe, but Illinois-Chicago (of the same conference as Butler and Detroit) served as a nice foil for our fledgling Eagles. The Fightin’ Flames were able to land a few punches early, but the Eagles, notably senior point guard Darrell Lampley, endured a stretch of sloppy play that kept them from an early run. Lampley was certainly amped up for the opener last night, and by not allowing the game to come to him he struggled through a rough stretch early. Call it opening night jitters. The most glaring example was driving into the hole to take on no less than three defenders while Antonio Green was wide open for three. In the next position, he drove to the hole, again passing up the dish to an open player, and got called for charging. Lampley was trying to do too much.
Fortunately for the Eagles, he settled down. Without quality point guard play our season is doomed, and Lampley calmed down and provided a big spark during the second half. With 5:10 left to play in the game, Lampley faked right, slid left, and nailed a crucial jumper. On the next possession, Lampley made up for the earlier mistakes by drawing the defender close, and dishing to Kamil Janton for an easy layup. Redemption is sweet.
Janton, who may have the ugliest free throw in the MAC, was forced into action due to foul trouble for Matt Balkema. Janton stabilized the interior, and after years of hearing how Janton was a great practice player, we finally saw a real contribution from him. Balkema was never able to get into a rhythm, and after picking up his fourth foul early the second half seemed destined to ride out the majority of the game on the pine. In what could have been a questionable move, Murphy left him in, and got a solid contribution. Balkema also deserves credit for playing smart while he had four fouls, but I also feel he didn’t lose any of his intensity on defense. When Balkema and Jamel Harris are both in, our interior defense can be quite formidable.
Kudos also need to be extended to Derek Thompson, who provided a much needed offensive spark throughout the game, and J.R. Sims, who will prove to be a valuable contributor off the bench if he plays like he did last night.
Charles Ramsey may have had a big win over Cal in his opener, but the more I saw of Rob Murphy last night, the more I appreciated his style. You cannot draw too much from one game, but Murphy was calm and in control. While the team teetered on the edge of letting the Flames get away form them, Murphy pulled the right strings, and seemed to shuffle the right players in at the right time. Let’s hope last night’s season opening victory is indicative of things to come. With games next week at Texas Southern, and home next Friday against Arkansas-Little Rock, we have a legit chance to start off strong. Considering the brutal December that awaits the Eagles, picking up these early wins is of tremendous importance.