Behind another workman-like performance from junior forward JJ Avila, the CSU men’s basketball team pulled out a 72-65 victory against rival Northern Colorado Friday night in front of an announced crowd of 4,473. While it wasn’t pretty, tonight’s victory was yet another step in the right direction for Head Coach Larry Eustachy’s young team.
“I’m a little amazed that we figured out how to win this one,” Eustachy said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever been more tickled than I am after this game. We did some things really well and this team played with a lot of heart.”
After struggling on the road in an 82-74 loss to UTEP Tuesday night, the Rams fought off a 1 for 12 shooting night from behind the arc to beat their in-state rivals and improve to 3-2 on the year. Avila again led the Rams’ offensive charge with 28 points on 9 of 13 shooting along with an impressive 10 for 10 performance from the free-throw line. With three of UNC’s top players on the bench in foul trouble, CSU big men Marcus Holt and Gerson Santo, along with Avila, went to work in the post dominating the depleted Bears’ frontcourt. Coupled with Avila’s stellar night, Santo and Holt combined for 18 points and 8 rebounds on 6 of 11 shooting, a big improvement from Tuesday night when both players struggled with foul trouble and only combined for five points and two rebounds in 28 minutes of action.
“After the UTEP game, Coach Eustachy really talked to me and Gerson about making a bigger impact for this team,” Holt said. “That was our emphasis in practice, to really just come out here and rebound and be a presence for our team.”
Holt and Santo’s performances were key on a night when Jon Octeus and Daniel Bejarano struggled for the Rams, combining to shoot 7 of 24 from the field and only 1 of 7 from the 3-point line. But if there was a bright spot for the Rams’ two junior guards, it was on the glass, where the two combined to pull down 19 rebounds, including 8 on the offensive end. Both Octeus and Bejarano have fought knee injuries this year, and after a loose-ball rebound late in the second half both players limped into the final media timeout with 3:53 remaining. However, neither player would allow themselves to be subbed out, something Eustachy praised when talking about the toughness of his young squad.
“I wanted those guys to stand up and not show any weakness there. Those guys are definitely hurting, trust me, but they have to learn to play through it,” Eustachy said. “With that said, I kept telling them that great players find a way to win this game and those guys found a way to win this one in spite of not shooting it well all night.”
The Rams (3-2) will continue their record-long ten game home stand Monday night against Prairie View A&M as the second game of their own tournament, the Colorado State Challenge.
Basketball Beat Reporter Keegan Pope can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @kpopecollegian.