For Richmond coach Chris Mooney's tenure at Richmond, which is now in its sixth season, it has been a story of patience for him. He came to Richmond in 2005 and was 37-54 through his first three seasons before his patience in his Princeton-based system paid off with back-to-back 20-win seasons the past two years and a trip to the NCAA Tournament last year. With his team squarely on the bubble for another tournament berth this year, Mooney's latest project that has tested his patience is starting to exceed even his expectations.
That project is senior forward Justin Harper, who even though he is 6-foot-10, is still able to hit 3-pointers like former Duke University guard J.J. Redick. Through his first three years with the Spiders, Harper has shown the potential to be a dominant player but those flashes were too inconsistent for Mooney's liking. But this season has been a different story.
Harper came into Wednesday night's game against George Washington University averaging 17.3 points, and has gotten better as the season has gone along. There have been many times this season where Harper has carried the Spiders to a victory, but none of those efforts were more impressive than his performance against George Washington.
Harper, who was not named to any of the three preseason Atlantic 10 Conference teams, scored a career-high 30 points and also grabbed 11 rebounds to lead Richmond past GW, 68-58, Wednesday night at the Robins Center. He also tied a career-high by playing all 40 minutes of the game, which represents another improvement in Harper's game from previous years as foul trouble would often limit his minutes.
"When I'm feeling it, I'm feeling it," Harper said. "I really just come out there every night with the same mindset. I have to be aggressive in order for my team do well, just help my team out in every way I can."
Probably most remarkably about Harper's 30-point performance was how efficient he was. He was 11 for 15 from the floor, including four of five 3-pointers attempted, and also went four for four from the foul line.
When Harper plays like he did Wednesday night, that validates what Mooney used to say to Harper to try to get him going after an off night.
"I can tell you, we would start practice after a game or a previous practice where he didn't do well and we would huddle and the first thing I'd say was, 'You know, Justin, you're going to play in the NBA,'" Mooney said. "This was kind of an apology for the things I had said the night before but I really believed it and we all really believed it I think long before Justin did or realized what that meant."
The career high by Harper overshadowed another solid performance by senior guard Kevin Anderson. He scored 20 points, his 36th game in his career with 20 points or more. It was a vintage outing by Anderson, as 15 of his points were scored during the second half when his team needed to rally from a nine-point halftime deficit.
Richmond played one of its worst halves all season during the first half as the Colonials were constantly able to drive past perimeter defenders and get easy layups. They made 15 baskets during the half (with two being 3-pointers) en route to a 33-24 lead at the break.
The second half was the complete opposite as the Richmond defense cut off most of the drives and if a GW ball handler was able to get a lane to the basket, it contested the layup attempt. George Washington made just 6 of its 24 baskets during the second half and scored nearly as many points from the foul line (11) as it did from the floor (14) during the half.
"I think we were being too aggressive [in the first half]," Anderson said. "Running out, trying to bring the aggression to them instead of letting them come to us. In the second half, they were driving into our guys' chests and we were getting charges. We were packing it in, staying tight and getting good help defense instead of running out and getting too spread out on the defensive end."
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The improved defense by Richmond also appeared to get its offense into a flow. After shooting 43.5 percent during the first half, the Spiders shot 60.7 percent during the second half and hit half of its ten 3-pointers. The tone for the second half was set right away by Harper, who hit a 3-pointer that cut the GW lead to six and got the 5,039 fans at the Robins Center back into the game.
"It's just big to finally see the ball go in," Harper said. "For our team, it really picks us up with their defense really working in the first half."
For GW coach Karl Hobbs, the change in the flow of the game boiled down to one simple point.
"I think someone told Anderson and Harper that there's a basketball game and they need to get involved," Hobbs said. "And they got involved in a big way in the second half. The difference in the game was that they had two basketball players that were far superior to any that we had on the floor."
Beside Anderson and Harper, five other Spiders scored but none had more than six points. Forward Kevin Smith, who was starting in the place of junior Francis-Cedric Martel who missed the game with an ankle injury, made only one basket but did so in an emphatic way.
Anderson was able to find a cutting Smith along the baseline for an emphatic one-handed dunk that fired up the whole team and put the Spiders ahead 62-51. While it was a highlight play, it wasn't his biggest contribution of the game.
He was key in shutting down the GW drives during the second half and on the offensive end had a career-high 11 assists.
"To have 11 assists in a game is remarkable for a point guard and to have 11 assists in a game where you're a small forward, you're not the primary ball handler, is phenomenal," Mooney said. "He always fills up a stat sheet but they do very little to indicate how important he is to us."
At the end of the game, Anderson tried to emulate Smith by going up for a dunk. But Anderson, who is 6-foot-0, twisted his ankle on the take-off and came up short of the dunk. He was fine after the attempt but said that he probably should have given the ball to Smith who was trailing on the play for another dunk.
"Kevin Smith I taught [to dunk]," Mooney said jokingly. "Kevin Anderson missed the class, I think, when we went over dunking."
Richmond, which is now 14-5 on the year and 3-1 in the A-10, will travel to Amherst, Mass., to take on the University of Massachusetts at noon on Jan. 22.
Contact staff writer Andrew Prezioso at email@example.com
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