CLINTON – Facing off against a rival always provides a team added motivation. On Wednesday night, the Ashford University men’s basketball team showed that it was ready for the challenge presented by a quality opponent.
Led by a career-high 26 points from junior Anthony Woods, the Saints held off a late rally to down St. Ambrose 72-69 to earn their fourth consecutive win and improve to 5-1.
The Saints never trailed, leading by as many as 15 points while knocking down 56.9 percent (29 of 51) of their shots. But after a fierce comeback bid by the Bees, the Saints were able to rely on their defense to close out their longtime rival.
“I’m really happy for our guys to get a win this early in the season over a really quality team,” Ashford coach Oliver Drake said. “We set the tone early in the game by being aggressive and putting the pressure on them at both ends of the floor. At the same time, we have to do a better job of closing teams out when you have a double-figure lead late in the game. It’s good to get the win, but our guys were upset after the game. That’s a great sign for us going forward.”
Junior DeAndre Lowery (14 pts), sophomore Damon Overton (12 pts) and senior Thaddeus Perry (10 pts) also reached double digits for the Saints.
Ashford had the hot hand out of the gate, opening the contest on a 12-4 run over the first five minutes. That lead ballooned to as many as 14 points, thanks to 18 first-half points from Woods and an 18-for-29 (62.1 percent) effort from the floor, giving Ashford a 39-31 lead at the break.
“From a game-plan standpoint, we wanted to expose their defense,” Drake said. “We attacked the rim and got a lot of high-percentage shots, especially early on. That enabled us to get some good looks from the outside, and our guys responded by knocking those shots down.”
The lead remained in double digits through most of the second half, but the Bees started to chip away in the final five minutes. Three-pointers from Nick Frazier and Ty McLane sliced the lead to three with two minutes to play. Frazier then added a pair of free throws to make it a 70-69 game with 49 seconds left.
But the Saints dug in on the defensive end, not allowing the Bees to get a good look in the dying seconds. Ambrose had its best chance in the final 6 seconds when Tylon Deal was fouled trying a 3-point shot. He missed all three free throwsy, then Josh Little rejected a game-tying 3 attempt from McLane to close out the game.
“We stuck to what we do best, and that’s play defense and rebound,” Drake said. “Our guys dug in and played really well defensively late. This group was ready to go, and we had a lot of new guys get experience in a high-pressure situation. That’s only going to help us going forward.”
Deal led the Bees with 16 points, but it wasn’t enough as St. Ambrose dropped to 5-2 on the year.
The Saints look to extend their winning streak Friday, when they travel to Chicago for the Moody Bible Institute Tournament. Ashford will face Presentation College to open the tournament at 5 p.m.