By Nicholas Leo
The Saints lost to the Florida Southern Moccasins 96-80 to open their season on Saturday, followed by an 88-75 loss against Northwest Missouri State University to conclude the Small College Hall of Fame Classic.
Kyle Young was named to the all-tournament team posting averages of 19 points 10 rebounds and 3.5 assists over the Saints’ opening two games.
Looking much different than last year with first-year head coach Blake Selland replacing Chad Warner along with the loss of four starters, including two-time All-American Jaizec Lottie, the Saints had a similar play style in their 2023 season opening games.
The Saints, when able and open, looked to push in transition with the green light to go to the rim or let it fly from deep, and in the half-court their sets evolved around their big to initiate the offense or be an on/off ball screener for their looks.
Flagler’s Jaylen Lemons seemed like he couldn’t miss against Florida Southern after pouring in a 16 point first half, finishing with 22 on the night. Malik Bryant would be the team’s second-leading scorer on opening night with 20 points, scoring at the rim, from midrange, and beyond the arc.
Throughout the game, Flagler and Florida Southern traded buckets, both squads shooting many catch and shoot three’s after working the ball inside or driving and being collapsed on.
A put-back slam by E.J. Dambreville immediately followed by a steal and transition layup 7 minutes into the game would spark a Florida Southern run to get the lead as both teams fought. The Saints countering the initial punch highlighted by knocking down a Bryant three pointer with 39 seconds left before the half, reducing the deficit to three at the break (41-38).
Kyle Young, a 6-foot 9-inch transfer from Sienna, would open the second half using post spin-moves on back-to-back possessions leading to an emphatic two-hand slam and two fouls drawn on the Moccasins starting center in the first 2 minutes of the second half.
The Saints’ biggest concern seemed to be turning the ball over, coming on telegraphed backdoor cuts and help-side defense taking swipes at the ball inside. Florida Southern scored 22 of their 96 points off Flagler’s 17 turnovers, while only turning the ball over seven times.
The Moccasins would lead the entire second half, the Saints closest run at the lead as of late would be provided by Bryant with back to back buckets in transition with just under 10 minutes left to reduce the deficit to seven.
With 5:20 left in the game, a two-hand flush by Wes Bongiornioff as the roller in an on-ball screen put the Moccasins up 16 where they’d roll to the win.
Coach Selland was proud of the Saints regardless of what the scoreboard read.
“Our guys fought hard. It wasn’t the outcome we wanted, but I told our team if we play like that, good things are going to happen this year,” Selland said, according to flaglerathletics.com.
The following night Flagler took on the three-time defending national champions. It was a battle of the Saint’s traditional four-out one-in basketball against the Northwest Missouri State University Bearcat’s constantly screening offense.
Flagler would have a 2-point lead (5-7) in the first four minutes and find themselves fighting from behind the rest of the way.
Young would start the game going 4-4 with 10 of the Saint’s first 17 points on the board, with the Saints looking to him early and often with his height advantage. He’d finish with a team-high 20 points and 12 rebounds but struggled with turnovers, recording 8.
In the first half, Flagler deployed a switch-on-everything defense which proved fatal as size mismatches were exploited getting shots close to the rim and help side defenders would foul often on late rotations.
The story of the first half was where points were generated. Flagler’s bench was scoreless in the first half and Lemons picked up three fouls early and was only able to play 10 scoreless minutes. They relied on Chase Fiddler’s hot hand hitting two of his three treys early in the first.
However, they would turn an early 20-point deficit into a contest with an 8-2 run going into the break, trailing 34-47.
The second half would start with a 15-7 Bearcats run in the first five minutes that forced the Saints to switch to a 2-3 zone defense even though NMSU shot over 45% from three in the first half. The adjustment proved ineffective initially as the Bearcats countered with a 1-3-1 offense, but the Saints took away their high post flasher and started closing in on the lead.
Omar Figueroa was a microwave off the bench, scoring all eight of his points in a timely manner hitting two threes, a transition layup, and taking charge to cap off a 15-2 run making it a 9-point game with 7:16 left to play.
The Saints would go back to their initial man defense and both teams threw punches at each other trading buckets and forcing turnovers as the lead wavered around 10 over the final seven minutes before NMSU pulled away, winning 88-75.
Bryant would finish with 13 points and Lemons would add 11. Flagler would record an even 41-41 score with the Bearcats through the second half as the Saints reduced their turnovers, shot better from three, and increased their trips to the free-throw line after halftime.
Both the Moccasins and Bearcats started the season 2-0 going undefeated in the tournament.
The Saints look to get their first win on the season in the South East Challenge over the weekend in Greenwood, S.C. Flagler will face Southern Wesleyan University this Friday and Anderson University Saturday, both games scheduled to start at 4:30 p.m.