John Krikorian's mantra that all Christopher Newport players have equal value, regardless of status or statistics, was tested and proven in the Captains' first-round NCAA tournament game.
CNU survived early foul trouble to its standouts, had a measured performance from its best player and received critical minutes from role players, yet controlled matters in an 84-72 victory against Rutgers-Newark on Saturday at the Freeman Center.
"I'm incredibly proud of our guys for the way we came out from the get-go, really establishing our style," Krikorian said. "We thought our ability to win this game was going to be to control the tempo, and we were able to get out early and create the tempo we wanted by rebounding and running up the floor."
CNU (22-5) won its seventh consecutive game and faces the Virginia Wesleyan-Delaware Valley winner next Saturday at a site to be determined.
Five Captains scored in double figures, led by Nik Biberaj's 22 points and 11 rebounds. Freshman Evan Thorpe helped jump-start CNU with 13 of his 14 points in the first half.
All-conference wing and leading scorer Tra Benefield patiently allowed the game to come to him and scored 14 of his 16 points in the second half.
CNU scored more points than Rutgers-Newark allowed in regulation all season. The Scarlet Raiders give up 60 points per game. The Captains had that with 9:43 remaining in a second half in which their lead fluctuated between 15 and 20 points.
Forced to scramble, Rutgers-Newark (20-8) drew as close as nine points in the final 30 seconds, but CNU was never threatened in the final 27 minutes.
"It's what we expected," Rutgers-Newark coach Joe Loughran said. "I knew their speed was good, and their ability to go off the dribble. We knew what their strengths were, and we tried to do the best we could to stop it."
The Scarlet Raiders, runnersup in the New Jersey Athletic Conference, had a decided height advantage, with 6-8 seniors Fateen Belfield and 6-6 Hussein Abdelmaksoud. But CNU's pace, quickness and ball movement neutralized them on offense, and the Captains routinely double-teamed them and made them work when they got the ball inside.
Rutgers-Newark all-conference guard Christian Garcia scored 19 points, but needed 17 shots. CNU limited the Scarlet Raiders to 27-percent shooting in the first half and 40 percent overall, the seventh consecutive game an opponent shot 40 percent or less.
"They're a good defensive team," Loughran said. "They're as good as we've seen all year. They fight through screens as good as anybody we've seen. They deserved to win today. They were the better team."
Biberaj and Thorpe keyed a first half in which the Captains survived foul trouble, an offensive drought and the Scarlet Raiders' size.
Thorpe, aggressive from the start, continually found seams and lanes to the basket and scored 13 points. Biberaj scored 10 points, grabbed five rebounds, blocked two shots and affected several others.
"It was kind of the way the game unfolded," said the 6-2 Thorpe. "With them being a bigger opponent, I thought I could take them off the dribble and go to the free throw line or make the layup. As soon as I started scoring, Coach (said), keep it coming."
When Biberaj picked up his second foul at the 9:36 mark and went to the bench, the Captains were suddenly quite undersized and inexperienced. Benefield picked up his second foul and went to the bench a minute later, and Rutgers-Newark took advantage. The Scarlet Raiders' 10-2 run tied the game at 20.
Krikorian gambled and brought back Biberaj with seven minutes remaining. The Captains responded with a 17-4 run in the final seven minutes. Connor Laframboise (12 points) hit a pair of 3-pointers, and Rutgers-Newark missed nine of its last 10 shots of the half and trailed 37-24.
"That kind of changed the tempo back in their favor," Loughran said. "In the second half, we couldn't get to that second run. We needed one more run in the second half to put some pressure on them. But they did a good job."
Benefield scored only two points in the first half and didn't hit his first jump shot until the 13:25 mark of the second half, which didn't bother Krikorian in the least.
"You don't even know he's out there sometimes," Krikorian said, "and then you look down and he's got 15 or 20 points. We never really get too rattled any more with Tra. We know he's going to find a way to contribute, and we just kind of wait. Sure enough, when we needed the dagger I thought he was the one that stepped up."
Benefield scored 10 of CNU's 14 points in a four-minute stretch that kept the lead at 20 points and provided a cushion for the Captains' endgame.
Though the Captains' standouts provided most of the numbers, little-used reserves Zach Youngman and Ben Watkins also played key minutes, particularly when the starters were in early foul trouble. Watkins had played 74 minutes all season, and Youngman had logged just 27 minutes.
"I told the guys last night, I'm going to sleep good tonight, knowing that whoever we put in the game, they're going to play Christopher Newport basketball," Krikorian said. "Because every single guy on our roster works extremely hard every single day. They all know the plan, they all do it every day. They just don't have the opportunity to get in games.
"All these guys are really good players, and I have great confidence that when it's their opportunity to play, we're not going to miss a beat."
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