Basketball

Senior guard Shellie Kaniut surveys the floor for the Eagles. Photo courtesy Emory Athletics.

The Emory women’s basketball team tasted both the glorious taste of victory and bitter taste of defeat in two tightly contested games.

The Emory women’s basketball team split a pair of games this weekend, falling to Washington University in St. Louis (Mo.) Friday Jan. 13 before defeating the University of Chicago (Il.) Sunday Jan. 15. After these two games, Emory’s record comes to 10-4 and 1-2 in University Athletic Association (UAA) play.

Emory initiated its weekend play Friday night as the team took on Washington at the Woodruff Physical Education Center (WoodPEC). The Eagles rode the crowd’s energy to a 23-19 first quarter lead. Hitting a three and swiftly handling the basketball against the opposition, freshman point guard Allison Chernow came flying out of the gates.

The second quarter was slightly more turbulent as Washington inched two points closer to Emory before the conclusion of the half. Both teams traded baskets throughout the quarter.

Unfortunately for the Eagles, Washington hit its stroke both offensively and defensively in the third quarter. In a disappointing quarter for Emory, Washington outscored the Eagles 24-10 to take a 64-52 lead. Washington’s lockdown defense forced Emory into poor shots and sloppy turnovers and defensively, Emory could not stop Washington’s offensive onslaught.

Emory coach Christy Thomaskutty reflected on the third quarter difficulties.

“Washington came out really aggressively in the second half, but we missed some early shots and I don’t think we played defense or rebounded the way we needed to,” Thomaskutty said.

Unable to surmount the 12-point Washington lead, Emory continued its offensive struggles in the fourth quarter. Culminating in missed layups and other open looks, the team’s inability to challenge Washington’s lead in the fourth quarter resulted in a 76-65 loss.

Thomaskutty suggested her team’s youth may have played a factor in their inability to recover from early mistakes, which inhibited their confidence during subsequent possessions.

“We hang on to some mistakes and we don’t get ourselves mentally engaged that next possession,” Thomaskutty noted.

With Friday’s loss behind them, Emory looked to tack on their first UAA win of the season Sunday against the University of Chicago at the WoodPEC.

The game began with unpolished play by both teams. Emory’s unforced turnovers and Chicago’s missed shots early in the game made for a sloppy first few minutes. Freshman forward Erin Lindahl helped the Eagles get back on track by hitting two consecutive baskets. Senior guard Shellie Kaniut followed suit, scoring six points in the first quarter. At the end of the first quarter Chicago led 15-14.

Much like the first quarter, neither team possessed a convincing lead in the second. Both teams scored 19 points to give Chicago a narrow 34-33 lead at the half.

Kaniut was instrumental in the second quarter, reviving her team after other guards struggled with ball security. Regarding Kaniut’s prominent play, Thomaskutty noted Kaniut helped her younger teammates.

“Our freshman point guards have not seen that kind of pressure and it was hard for them to adjust,” Thomaskutty said. “Shellie took over running the point and she put the ball in the hands of our best shooters.”

In the third quarter, Chicago gave its team a slightly more comfortable lead. Chicago added five more points to make it a 58-52 game heading into the fourth.

Chicago’s lead grew for the majority of the fourth quarter. With fewer than four minutes left, Chicago enjoyed a 71-63 lead. From this point forward Emory played some of their best basketball to date.

Energized by an enthused WoodPEC, the women began their heroic comeback. They locked down more effectively on defense, and executed on offense. With Chicago unable to respond to any of Emory’s baskets, the Eagles held Chicago scoreless for the rest of the game and tallied 11 unanswered points to win 74-71.

Kaniut shared what she thought was conducive to her team’s comeback.

“Focusing on each possession and doing what we can defensively [helped us win],” Kaniut said. “On defense we made sure that our rotations went well and that we were talking.”

Thomaskutty raved about two of her players, sophomore guard Azzairia Jackson-Sherrod and senior guard Michelle Bevan, both of whom played a vital role in her team’s victory.

“I can’t say enough about Azzairia’s minutes. Coming off the bench she gave us some huge minutes and a couple of rebounds,” Thomaskutty exclaimed.

Thomaskutty highlighted Michelle Bevan’s success as well.

“I told Michelle in shoot around today when you rebound we win,” Thomaskutty said. “She led the team with 11 rebounds today.”

Kaniut spoke about the crowd and their impact in invigorating her team.

“After every shot we knew we had the whole gym behind us,” she said. “That can really give you the extra push towards the end when fatigue starts setting in to start making those extra plays.”

For their next game, the Eagles travel to Case Western Reserve University (Ohio) Friday Jan. 20.

Junior guard Whit Rapp carries the ball up the floor for the Eagles. Photo Courtesy of Emory Athletics.

Hoping to save face after an embarrassing premier in University Athletic Association (UAA) play last weekend at Rochester University, the Emory men’s basketball team came up short in a disappointing home loss to the Washington University in St. Louis (Mo.) Bears Friday, falling 71-63. However, the Eagles bounced back in a huge way on Sunday, holding off the visiting University of Chicago (Il.) Maroons 80-72 for their first win in UAA play. The Eagles finish the weekend now 10-4 on the year and 1-2 in the UAA.

Bolstered by a packed home crowd draped in white for Friday’s whiteout theme, the energy was high for both sides at the tip off. Emory and Wash U exchanged blows early on, but Wash U’s  slight lead grew as the half progressed.

“The crowd was great,” Head Coach Jason Zimmerman said. “We wish we could have given [the crowd] something more to cheer for and get excited about, but we didn’t do a very good job of that [Friday night].”

Too often, the Eagles settled for tough looks offensively, while allowing the Bears to attack the rim for easier scoring opportunities. The Bears’ determination to push the ball into the paint paid significant dividends, as Wash U finished the game with a 10 point advantage in the paint.

“We knew they had good bigs, [but] we have good bigs,” Zimmerman said. “We’ve got to be better. They did a good job of making us work for shots and we didn’t do a very good job of meeting that challenge.”

The Eagles would push back, bringing Wash U’s lead down to four prior to a Bears’ three that pushed their lead back out to seven at halftime, squelching the Eagles’ momentum.

In need of a strong response to start the second half, the Eagles came out flat. Emory missed some easy looks and allowed the Bears to once again obtain a comfortable double-digit lead.

“I felt like we had a bit of a hangover from last week [against Rochester], which shouldn’t happen,” Zimmerman said. “The confidence and the feel [of a team] is very fragile, but you’ve got to be able to put that behind you and move on.”

There were flashes of life from the Emory offense down the stretch, but they could never quite pick up enough defensive stops to cut deeply into the Bears’ lead. Wash U junior guard Jake Knupp was a splinter in Emory’s side through much of the game, scoring 15 points, many in critical moments to deflate Emory’s hopes of a comeback.

A final surge by the Eagles showed promise, as they were able to cut the lead six after a run of seven consecutive missed free throws from the Bears. In the end it would be too little, too late, as Wash U escaped with the 71-63 road victory.

On Sunday, the Eagles took the court with a swagger lacking from Friday’s game.

In an early play that would typify the afternoon, senior forward Jim Gordon received the ball with a possible look at three, but pump-faked and drove the ball to the hole for an easy lay-in. Determined to feed the ball into the post and drive to the lane, Emory refused to settle for the tough perimeter jumpers that plagued Friday’s game.

“We knew that after dropping those first two games in the conference we had to have a big one [Sunday],” junior forward Christopher Avant said. “We got back to the basics and played hard nosed defense and really tried to run them in transition. We knew we had to play well and we came out with a lot of energy.”

Leading 38-27 at half, Emory kept Chicago at arm’s length, securing the 82-70 victory. Junior forward Adam Gigax had a team-high 24 points with nine rebounds and junior forward Christopher Avant came through with perhaps his best performance yet, dropping in 19 points on 80 percent shooting.

“Coach is really trying to get me to play with confidence,” Avant said. “Going forward I have to know that those are the kind of numbers I can bring to the table every game, and in order for us to win I have to play well – score points, get rebounds – and that will happen if I just play with confidence.”

Off the bench, sophomore guard Beau Bommarito provided big minutes. He did not light up the stat sheet but did a lot of intangibles for the Eagles during his time on the floor.

“I just want to control what I can,” Bommarito said. “My shot may not be falling in certain games, I may not get the ball as much, but no matter what I can always run the floor. No matter what I can always try and go in and get the rebound and be in the right spot to make the play, and I think I was able to do that a little bit more Sunday and help the team out.”

The win over Chicago keeps the Eagles in the thick of the UAA race and gives them a boost before they travel northward this next weekend, playing at Case Western Reserve University (Ohio) Friday, before a matchup against Carnegie Mellon University (Penn.) Sunday.

“We are trying to take it a game at a time,” Avant said. “We know we aren’t out of it.”

Photo Courtesy of Emory Athletics

Closing out play before the semester break on a four game win streak, the men’s basketball program picked up right up where it left off after a respite from the classroom and the court. The Eagles returned to the floor late December, winning three consecutive home games in impressive fashion. Playing at home against Berry College (Ga.) Dec. 29, the Eagles collected a 91-80 victory. Building off of the Berry win, the Eagles handily dispatched both Hampden-Sydney College (Va.) by a score of 87-62 and local rival Oglethorpe University (Ga.), 93-68. But in their first UAA game, Emory stumbled in one of the program’s biggest losses in recent history, a 54-84 beating at the hands of Rochester University (N.Y.) Jan 7.

With the season picking up steam, the engine suddenly ground to a halt with a break from competition. Performance was finally matching preseason expectations after a rocky 2-2 start through Emory’s first four games. And while the break can be a period of recovery, it also halts momentum on the court.

“It’s great because … we don’t have the grind of class, homework or school. We can treat basketball as our one focus,” senior forward Jim Gordon said. “Coming back from that ten day break, we might have been a little rusty, but I think with those three games we gained a lot of confidence.”

The first of those three games came against Berry College. Despite a slow start, the Eagles ultimately cruised to the 91-80 victory.

“There is a lot of evaluation and growth that goes on during those days [before the first game of the break],” Head Coach Jason Zimmerman said. “That first game it took us some time to get into rhythm and then we played really well in the next two games. Usually, if the team can grow during that time it can lead to a really good year.”

Shedding some more rust after Berry, the Eagles took care of business against both Hampden-Sydney College and Oglethorpe University, scoring around 90 points in both games while picking up the intensity on the defensive end. Tacking on these three wins, the win streak was now seven games.

“We started to develop an identity a little bit more,” Zimmerman said. “It took us a while to get back into rhythm, but I thought that the two games we played before Rochester, we played as well as we have all year. I thought our offensive flow was good and that our defensive attention to detail was really good going into Rochester.”

Hopes were high following the team’s impressive showing at home, but a difficult opponent lay ahead in the form of the No. 4-ranked Rochester Yellowjackets, the Eagles first opponent in UAA play.

Undefeated on the year, the Yellowjackets were less than kind hosts to the visiting Eagles. Rochester held the Eagles to only 54 points while the duo of senior guards Mack Montague and Sam Borst-Smith went off for a combined 37 points, propelling the Yellowjackets to an early lead that would only grow as the game wore on, resulting in an 84-54 blowout that brought the Eagles to 9-3 on the season, 0-1 in UAA play.

“We did our best to prepare specifically for what Rochester was going to do, but once we got to the game we didn’t execute quite the way that we wanted,” senior forward Adam Gigax said.

For whatever reason, the pieces just did not come together for the Eagles in New York.

“Rochester is a great team, but I think from the moment the ball tipped there was a cap on the rim. It was one of those games where we couldn’t buy a bucket,” Gordon said. “Games like that [are] where we really have to buy in, be connected, and stay tough on defense, and to be honest we didn’t, which leads to a route like that.”

Dealing with the difficult loss against Rochester is foreign territory for this Eagles squad, but hopes remain high as the team prepares for Friday.

“The past two years I’ve been here there really hasn’t been [a loss] quite like that,” Gigax said. “[We learned] that Rochester was a tough team and that we have to stay getting better in practice, and no matter how much we keep working there is always more to be done.”

The Emory women’s basketball team hosted the Mary Baldwin College (Va.) Fighting Squirrels Sunday, Nov. 27, and the Eagles dominated, winning 89-43. Continuing their excellent start to the season, Emory maintains their perfect record at 5-0..

The Eagles came out scorching hot against Mary Baldwin scoring 25 unanswered points to start the game. By the end of the first quarter Emory outscored Mary Baldwin 31-4.

Sophomore guard Azzairia Jackson-Sherrod led the team in scoring in the first quarter with eight points. Significant contributions also came from freshman forward Erin Lindahl and sophomore center Ashley Oldshue who scored seven and six points, respectively. Emory also played lock-down defense in the first quarter. Active defense on the perimeter prevented Mary Baldwin from getting the ball into the paint and forced contested shots from the floor.

By accumulating a large lead early, Head Coach Christy Thomaskutty was excited to give her younger players an opportunity to get ample playing time.

“I think our young players got a lot of experience. I think a couple of them learned that there is another gear they have to go into,” Thomaskutty explained.

Emory continued to outplay Mary Baldwin in the second quarter outscoring the Fighting Squirrels 25-12.

Senior guard Shellie Kaniut came alive in the second putting up eight points. The Mary Baldwin defense was unable to stop Kaniut’s swift moves with the basketball. She was consistently able to slice through the defense to convert on easy shots in the paint.

The Eagles slowed down in the second half as the final two quarters were played more competitively. Emory’s offensive attack relaxed a little bit and Mary Baldwin was more active on defense.

Emory tallied 17 points to Mary Baldwin’s 12 in the third quarter.

To begin the fourth quarter, senior guard Fran Sweeney flashed her talents both offensively and defensively. Sweeney was active recording six points with a steal in the final quarter.

Overall Sweeney scored 14 points, going 3-6 behind the arc, tallying six steals and grabbing six rebounds.

Sweeney discussed her role on the team noting her ability to play effective offense and defense.

“I see my role as a three point shooter, but I also see a big part on the defensive side as well,” Sweeney said.

Emory outscored Mary Baldwin by only one point in the fourth quarter.

Thomaskutty explained that her team’s inability to contest as many shots led to tighter play between the two teams.

“One of our biggest things is that we want to contest every shot and I don’t think we did as good a job of that late in the game,” Thomaskutty said.

Emory’s leading scorer was Jackson-Sherrod with 18 points. Freshman guard Lindsey Tse led the team with 10 assists and Oldshue was the top rebounder with 10.

The Eagles will face Sewanee: The University of the South (Tenn.) Tuesday, Nov. 29, at home.

Emory junior point guard Whit Rapp's ability to distribute is a key factor in the Eagles' offensive balance. Photo courtesy of Emory Athletics.

The Eagles competed in their second road invitational this past weekend, losing their first game Friday to LaGrange College (Ga.) 84-95 before a better showing Sunday in a 71-62 win over Maryville College (Tenn.). The two games, played at Oglethorpe University (Ga.), brought the Eagles’ record to 3-2 on the season.

After a strong performance in North Carolina last weekend, hopes were high that the Eagles would continue winning. However, the LaGrange Panthers had their own say in the matter, streaking their way to 95 points and holding off the Eagles’ attack to snag the win.

A significant portion of the Panthers’ offense came from the duo of sophomore forward Elijah Adedoyin and senior guard Justyn Olson, who combined for 41 points. Adedoyin was lethal from behind the arc, hitting six threes in the game, five coming in the first half. Olson’s game was quiet yet effective, his stat line highlighted by a perfect 9-9 performance at the charity stripe.

“We prepared well in practice with personnel and the scouting report, but when it came to the game, we weren’t locked in,” junior forward Christopher Avant said.

Head Coach Jason Zimmerman agreed with Avant’s analysis of the team’s performance, citing the players’ failure to produce in the game against LaGrange College

“We missed some assignments and our execution of details wasn’t very good,” Zimmerman said. “We didn’t execute the game plan. We can’t give up 95 points.”

Aided by Adedoyin’s sharpshooting, the Panthers charged out to a 45-36 halftime lead and never looked back. The Eagles played with a balanced attack led by junior forward Adam Gigax’s 20 points but failed to slow the Panthers’ offense down the stretch. The Eagles managed to cut the deficit down to seven points with six minutes remaining, but would not get any closer than that as Olson quickly drained two free throws to push the Panthers’ lead back to nine and maintain a safe distance through the 95-84 finish.

The difference Sunday came in the Eagles’ defensive effort. Emory held the Maryville College Scots to only 62 points on 26 percent shooting from the field.

“Our focus was better and our attention to detail was better,” Zimmerman said. “In the Maryville game, we defended longer stretches like we needed to. We put back-to-back stops together [against Maryville] a lot better than we did [against LaGrange].”

For the Eagles, another afternoon of balanced scoring coupled with a tighter focus on defensive assignments propelled Emory to the 71-62 victory. Four Emory players scored in double figures, including Avant, who finished the game with a double-double on 10 points and 10 rebounds.

Zimmerman contributed the success against Maryville to the team’s cooperation.

“The ball doesn’t stick very often to a certain guy,” Zimmerman said. “We have talented offensive players, so when they get in a rhythm and get comfortable, different guys on different nights can score.”

The Eagles’ ability to spread the ball around helped relieve the pressure to score off any one individual.

“We have a lot of guys [who] can score the ball, so if one guy isn’t having a good game, another guy can step up offensively,” Avant said.

The Eagles will finish their seven-game road stretch at the end of this week. The players understand that these challenging games will help prepare them for tougher opponents down the road.

“It’s tough to find your identity on the road,” Avant explained. “But in the long run, these away games will prepare us better for the conference season.”   

The Eagles will continue on the road Wednesday at Birmingham-Southern College (Ala.) and will close out the stretch at Piedmont College (Ga.) Saturday.

Emory’s women’s basketball team beat crosstown rival Oglethorpe University (Ga.) 71-66 at home Tuesday, Nov. 15, advancing to 1-0 on the season.

The refreshed Eagles brought five freshmen to the court, and they did not regret taking a risk with the younger and less experienced players. With a clean slate this season, Emory looked to erase the memories of a disappointing end to last season as they lost to the University of Rochester (N.Y.) 66-49 in University Athletic Association (UAA) play.

Early in the first quarter, Emory took a 5-2 lead after a three pointer from senior guard Frances Sweeney and never looked back.

The Eagles led by as many as eight points in the first half, but a series of missed shots and Oglethorpe’s quick responses knotted up the game at 33 near the end of the second quarter. Freshman guard Lindsey Tse hit 1-2 from the line to give Emory a 34-33 lead at halftime.

Sweeney started Emory’s scoring in the second half with a three-point shot. That spurred a Tse-led Emory offensive rush. Tse possessed a hot hand, slicing through Oglethorpe’s defense, scoring quick baskets and drawing fouls, ultimately scoring eight points total during the third quarter.

In the fourth quarter, Emory effectively hit timely baskets and held off any Oglethorpe attempts to ignite a comeback. Tse displayed her defensive prowess, tallying a steal and three defensive rebounds in the final quarter.

As the clock winded down, Oglethorpe trailed by three and missed a two pointer with less than 10 seconds left in the game. Tse rebounded the two pointer and sealed the deal, after which she was quickly fouled and sent to the free throw line, where she increased Emory’s lead to five.

Due in large part to Tse’s and sophomore center Ashley Oldshue’s contributions, Emory lit up the scoreboard. The recipe to success: Tse running the point and driving to the net combined with Oldshue’s presence in the paint gave Emory an advantage on the night.

Oldshue had a double-double with 17 points and 16 rebounds, and Tse, in her first collegiate game, garnered 19 points, six assists and six rebounds. Head Coach Christy Thomaskutty praised Tse’s and Oldshue’s performances in the season opener, especially noting their underclassmen status.

“I can’t say enough about Lindsey [Tse’s] and Ashley [Oldshue]’s performances tonight,” Thomaskutty said. “That’s a freshman and a sophomore.”

Although Tse made a great first impression on the court, she acknowledged that teamwork was crucial to notching the win.

I was a little nervous but mostly excited going into Tuesday’s game,” Tse said. “It’s great to know that that win was such a team effort. It was validation that all our hard work throughout preseason and the first couple of weeks of practice paid off. ”

Freshman forward Erin Lindahl and Sweeney also contributed significantly: Lindahl was Emory’s second leading rebounder and put up eight points, while Sweeney had a solid night from behind the arc, going 3-7 from three point range, totaling nine points.

After the first game, it seems Emory has found a reliable player near the basket in Oldshue. She uses her 6-2 height to her advantage, allowing her to gain leverage over the opposition. In total, she tallied nine offensive rebounds Tuesday night.

Emory’s speed and agility empowered Emory’s success on the boards. Overall, the Eagles out-rebounded Oglethorpe by a margin of 54-45.

Another area of strength for Emory included a high free-throw percentage, hitting 16 of 19 from the line. Emory was not only effective in drawing fouls but also able to limit the number of fouls they committed. Compared to Emory’s 19 attempts at the charity stripe, Oglethorpe only took eight shots at the line.

Perhaps Emory’s biggest issue was their three-point shooting percentage. Emory only shot 23.8 percent from behind the arc, going 5 of 21 on the night. Oglethorpe did comparatively better shooting 8-21, 38.1 percent, from behind the three-point line.

The Eagles will return to action Saturday, Nov. 19, as they travel to Baltimore to face Johns Hopkins University (Md.) in the Johns Hopkins Tournament.

Senior forward Jim Gordon is one of four seniors on this year's team. Photo courtesy of Emory Athletics.

Winning a national championship used to seem like a dream for Emory’s men’s basketball team, but with each passing year, that dream edges closer and closer to reality. Coming off a season in which the Eagles tallied 20 wins, won the University Athletic Association (UAA) title and made a fourth consecutive National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) tournament appearance (including their third consecutive trip to the Sweet 16), the team has set the bar high as they prepare for another exciting year.

With strong performances over the last few years, many players return possessing experience playing in the NCAA tournament and knowledge of what it takes to be successful. However, Head Coach Jason Zimmerman, who has been coaching at Emory for 10 years, recognizes the need for improvement despite accomplishments in years past.

“The NCAA tournament run gives you experience, but that means nothing on Tuesday night when we go play Covenant (Ga.),” Zimmerman said. “We have to play better in those 40 minutes. Sometimes youthfulness is good, and sometimes experience takes over, and that’s why we need all 15 guys to be leaders at some point in time during the year.”

The team operates under the philosophy that all players must exert leadership. This stems first from the refusal to assign team captains.

Although there are no Emory basketball team captains, “[the team has] senior leaders … but there are different times when everyone has to be a leader,” Zimmerman said.

This egalitarian atmosphere gives all players a chance to have their voice heard.

“I don’t think anyone is afraid to hold another one accountable,” junior forward Adam Gigax said. “No matter who the individual on the team is, they are not afraid to speak their mind and lead when the opportunity presents itself.”

The men’s basketball program has made four consecutive NCAA tournament appearances for a total of five appearances in the program’s history. This success is not only impressive, but also unprecedented in the program’s history.

“When I first came [to Emory] nine years ago, winning a national championship was foreign to us,” Zimmerman said. “Now, I don’t think it’s foreign, but you also can’t lose track of what got you to that point.”

Zimmerman acknowledges that the goal from his first year coaching at Emory has been to win a national championship. However, the goals he communicates to the team revolve around the little improvements they can make week-to-week.

“We go into the season with three real objectives: get better every day, compete to win and then enjoy the journey,” Zimmerman said. “We have talked about winning an NCAA championship since we’ve been here, but that’s not the goal you focus on every day. The first goal is to beat Covenant.”

With several old faces returning to face a fresh set of challenges, Gigax is optimistic about this season’s potential for success.

“While we do return a lot of guys, we really are just going to work hard every day and every game throughout the season and see where it takes us,” Gigax said. “We have a lot of experience and talent and guys really committed to what we are doing, so as far as I’m concerned, the sky’s the limit.”  

The Eagles bring back a strong cast of returning players, including four seniors: guard Jonathan Terry, forward Austin Dague, forward Jim Gordon and guard Jonathan Coles. Gigax was named to the All-UAA First Team last year on 12.9 points per game, while junior point guard Whit Rapp, coming off a season in which he averaged nearly six assists per game, will run the offense. Additionally, the coaching staff composed of Zimmerman and Assistant Coaches Charlie Copp, Chris McHugh, Chad Hixon and Pete Zaharis were recognized as the 2015-2016 UAA Coaching Staff of the Year.

Ask Zimmerman who his team’s best player is, and you will likely leave with comprehensive knowledge of the Eagles’ 15-man roster.

“Our depth is great and it could be a strength for us … We can play a lot of different ways and not take away from our effectiveness,” Zimmerman said. “There’s not one guy that [opponents] can key on to stop us.”

The standards are high, but the Eagles will take on this season one game at a time. The Eagles lost their first game of the season against Covenant College by a score of 74-70 on Tuesday and will play their next game on Friday against William Peace University (N.C.) in Greensbro N.C.

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The Atlanta Hawks have long been stuck in the middle — they seem to just exist in the current NBA landscape. Sure, they never finish last, but the last time the team won a championship was 1958. They have been the definition of average — never bad enough to have a chance at potential superstars in the draft, but never good enough to win it all.

Even last year, when we saw the Hawks emerge as possible title contenders for the first time in decades, they never had a realistic shot at the title. Despite the fact that they earned the best record in the Eastern Conference and the second best record in the NBA (behind the Golden State Warriors), they were never thought of as better than the Cleveland Cavaliers. After defeating both the Brooklyn Nets and the Washington Wizards in the first round and semifinals, respectively, the Hawks were swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the conference finals, proving once again that they stand solidly outside the league’s elite. Even if they had managed to defeat the Cavs, few people, if any, would have given them a shot against a historically strong Warriors team, or any other team in the West’s upper crust for that matter.

To be fair, the Hawks were a very good team last year. They won 60 games, which is no small feat. They had a formidable core of guard Jeff Teague, forward Paul Millsap, center Al Horford and forward Kyle Korver. Under the leadership of Gregg Popovich’s protégé, head coach Mike Budenholzer, hope was on the horizon. However, that hope didn’t help the Hawks make it to the Finals.

Their trip to the conference finals looks even less impressive when you look at their series against the Wizards. The team relied on the heroics of Horford’s offensive rebound and buzzer beater in Game 3 to take the lead. Then, in Game 6, the Hawks received one of the luckiest breaks in NBA history when Wizards’ Paul Pierce’s game-tying three-pointer at the buzzer was deemed too late. The series between the Wizards and the Hawks was one of the closest in last year’s playoffs, with five of the six games won by six or less points and two games decided by buzzer beaters. What makes that all the more damning is the fact that the Wizards were without their superstar and best player, guard John Wall, for Games 2, 3 and 4. This is hardly the play of a team calling itself a contender.

Many NBA fans believe the Hawks overachieved last year during the regular season. Given how much they’ve regressed this year, there might be some truth there. While last year the Hawks won the Eastern Conference by seven games, they are currently fighting it out in the middle of the pack. At this point in time, the Hawks hold the No. 3 seed in the East with a 48-33 record, and they are within two games of the Charlotte Hornets, Boston Celtics and Miami Heat in a heavy logjam between the 3 to 6 seeds in the East. While there’s a decent chance the Hawks can advance past the first round, it’s incredibly doubtful that they will advance past the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Toronto Raptors that sit at the top of the conference. Even if they were able to win the East, it would be nothing short of impossible for them to defeat either the San Antonio Spurs or the Golden State Warriors in the finals.

Looking at the past 20 years, this is nothing new for the Hawks. They are an above average Eastern Conference team that consistently makes it to the playoffs but fails to win a championship. While there is value to always making the playoffs, never winning a championship takes its toll as well.

Since the 2008 season, the Hawks have made the playoffs every year. The farthest they’ve advanced before last season, however, was the conference semifinals. In four of those eight seasons, the Hawks lost in the first round. This has happened before: from 1993 to 1999, the Hawks made the playoffs every year yet never reached the conference finals.

Of course, there’s value in being a playoff team almost every year. The Hawks have absolutely no control over what happens in the rest of the league, particularly with superstars coming together to form a “big three” (as was the case with the Boston Celtics in 2008 and the Miami Heat in 2011). When things like that happen, sometimes all you can do is be competitive. Making the playoffs tends to be a signal of being at least an average to above average team, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re great either.

The Hawks have been one of the few teams, most notably the Dallas Mavericks, who have refused to follow the “contender or tank” formula that most of the NBA seem to have bought into. Most teams either maintain a cohesive roster and add solid free agents as championship contenders every year (the Cleveland Cavaliers, San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors) or blow up their roster in exchange for future draft picks and young prospects (the Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers and Denver Nuggets). Often, these teams are near the bottom of the standings to procure favorable rookies in the draft. Teams in the middle, without many high first round picks and are not championship contenders, have an unpromising present and a horrid future. Namely, both New York franchises (the Nets and the Knicks) are stuck in this middle ground because of poor trades and bad management in general. As has increasingly become clear, it appears the only way to get superstars on your team is to already have one or to draft them. Although Atlanta is in a better situation than some of these franchises, the Hawks can’t seem to escape the middle ground for any serious length of time.

The effect of being such a mediocre team is apparent in its fan base. Since 2001, the Atlanta Hawks have been in the lower half of the NBA in average home attendance. This number is boosted by the two seasons in which they ranked 18th (2009-2019) and 17th (2014-2015). Discounting these exceptions, the Hawks have actually ranked in the lower third of the NBA since 2001. Of course, many other factors play into low attendance, such as the location of the team and the sports culture within the city. But if there’s one thing that championships do, it’s bring fans to the stadium. The Hawks have suffered from a simple reality: they’ve been boring.

With another season of being stuck in the middle almost behind us, we can expect another first round or semifinal exit from the Hawks. While they have been competitive, they’ve never managed to put themselves ahead of the rest of the league. And while there is hope, there is no clear solution on the horizon. They are truly mired in mediocrity.

 

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The Atlanta Hawks (32-27) defeated a depleted Chicago Bulls team (30-26) 103-88 yesterday night at the Philips Arena, moving up in the Eastern Conference standings in what was a much needed win for the fledgling Hawks.

A loss would have been disastrous for Atlanta who had lost the last three in a row as they’ve struggled to maintain their position in the ever-so tight Eastern Conference.

The Bulls came to Atlanta with a roster riddled with injuries: Jimmy Butler (knee), Joakim Noah (shoulder) and Derrick Rose (hamstring) all sat out in the matchup.

Both Butler and Rose shot around during the early pre-game warm-ups but were clearly not in playing condition, shooting without leaving the ground.

Atlanta sought to dominate via the three-point game early on. The Hawks needed all they could muster elsewhere on offense as they struggled shooting from beyond the arch.

Both teams finished the first half 3-30 (10 percent) from downtown. In the second half, the Hawks were able to recalibrate to shoot slightly better.

The Hawks were able to get most our of their starting line up involved on offense as Paul Millsap (12 points), Kent Bazemore (17 points), Al Horford (18 points) and Jeff Teague (19 points) all played key roles in the victory. Kyle Korver’s struggles continued as he played almost no role in the win, performing poorly from the three (1-6) and scoring only five points on the night.

However, with such offensive balance, the Hawks won every quarter and were able to overcome Korver’s lack of impact.

“Being able to come here tonight, to get a win like that, it’s big for us,” Horford said following the game. “Every time we play [Chicago] I feel like for us, it’s a must win.”

The Bulls’ Doug McDermott (20 points) and Pau Gasol (16 points) played significant roles for their team’s offense even though both players are usually custom to playing supportive roles on their usually high powered offense.

“We need to be able to put together better effort with the guys that we do have,” Gasol said after the game. “We didn’t execute the game plan we intended.”

Taj Gibson echoed a similar sentiment following the game, saying that he believes the team has enough talent to “scrap out more wins” but was unable to pull it together in Atlanta.

Following the game, the Hawks locker room was abuzz with the term “must win.” Indeed, the team could not have afforded to lose this game especially with a two-week road trip around the corner.

“Tonight was big for us,” Hawks Head Coach Mike Budenholzer said in his post game conference. “We had a tough three games coming out of the break, some of which were close. To have two to three days off and come out here with a win is big, and we got one more on Sunday — that’s going to have to be a similar mindset.”

The Bulls will be at home to play the Portland Trail Blazers tonight at 8 p.m, while the Hawks will host the Charlotte Hornets tomorrow afternoon at 3:30 p.m. at the Phillips Arena.