Justin Robinson scored 23 of his 27 points in second half as Monmouth withstood early shots from Princeton to score ninth consecutive victory. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)
WEST LONG BRANCH, NJ -- Shortly after a come-from-behind victory against Wagner two weeks ago, King Rice was concerned about Justin Robinson not being aggressive enough, saying his senior point guard needed to get more of his own shots.
A fortnight later, Robinson heeded his coach's suggestion, and managed to take center stage on a night where his team needed a take-charge effort against a scrappy mid-major foe.
The Preseason Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Player of the Year scored 23 of his team-leading 27 points after halftime, propelling Monmouth to a 96-90 win over in-state adversary Princeton Tuesday night at the OceanFirst Bank Center, giving the Hawks their ninth consecutive victory in the process.
"Justin, Je'lon (Hornbeak) and Micah (Seaborn) are all big-time scorers," said Rice. "Sometimes I go to them and I want this and I want that, and today I talked to all three of them and I said, 'Listen, guys: You've all got to come out firing away, and if they beat us because that's the game plan, then they beat us. But I can't have you not coming out playing how we play."
"Coach told me, 'if you get the back tip, just go and shoot it," Robinson recounted when asked of his first opportunity to attack the Princeton defense, which resulted in an air-balled three-pointer. "Coach is going to want me to keep playing. If I shoot and I miss, whatever. You've just got to keep going, because the team is going to look to the leader to lead offensively or defensively. Tonight, it was offensively."
Robinson, who complemented his offense with seven assists against just two turnovers, was aided by Hornbeak, whose 25 points and 10 rebounds signified his first career double-double. Austin Tilghman also had a quietly brilliant outing, contributing 18 points off the bench to set a new career high, making six of his seven field goal attempts.
"We've got seven dudes who could start," Rice proclaimed when assessing Tilghman's effort. "He comes in for Justin and he gets 18. Austin Tilghman is a stud. He could get 25 minutes or six minutes, he doesn't care. He's a starter in this league on a very deep team, and he gives us starter minutes and starter depth."
The Hawks (10-2) looked dead in the water through the opening minutes, spotting Princeton a 13-2 run to start the game and ultimately trailing by as many as 13 points, but slowly tightened the screws defensively to take a 39-38 lead heading into the intermission. After conceding a 13-of-18 start to the Tigers, Monmouth allowed only two field goals over the final 8:18 of the opening stanza to get back into a game that lived up to its substantial hype.
"With 11 minutes to go, Josh James said 'Coach, can we just play them straight man-to-man?' And I was like, 'that's what you want to do?'" Rice recalled. "I went with that, and they were the ones that were right. It's great to listen to your players, even when you think you're the one that should know."
Princeton (4-6) seized control once again out of the locker room, taking a 66-58 lead with 9:16 to go and threatening to pull away. But Rice's message to his troops was a simple one, and was received in the form of a 16-0 run that saw Robinson and Hornbeak flip the script on the outcome, with Hornbeak draining the go-ahead three-pointer before Robinson scored the next seven points immediately thereafter to put the Hawks ahead by eight with 4:57 on the clock in regulation.
"Honestly, we don't really think too many games are getting away from us," Hornbeak said of the team mindset when they trailed by eight midway through the second half. "We're very confident in the things that we can do and how we can dictate games, so when we got down, we knew we just had to stick together, grind deep, and get some stops. We knew the offense was going to come."
"Never, not at all," said Rice when asked if he thought the game was getting away from his team at that juncture. "What we're known for is stopping guys. We're going to score. We just need one stop at a time. When you can score like our team can score, sometimes you think your offense should get you going, and that's just them being young dudes."
"We're the 'defense gets you going' group," he reaffirmed. "Offense is going to go at some point during this game, but we've got to start getting stops."
Princeton would attempt to battle back the rest of the way, but was met by a Monmouth answer each time. For the Tigers, Steven Cook led the way with 30 points on 12-of-18 shooting, while Devin Cannady posted a career-high 26.
Monmouth's final non-conference game comes one week from Wednesday in Chapel Hill against Rice's alma mater, North Carolina; and although the Tar Heels will be heavily favored, the man who will match wits with Roy Williams is displaying the same quiet confidence in advance of a potentially high reward should the Hawks come away from the Dean E. Smith Center with an upset in tow.
"Someone said to me, 'King, you've got a lot of options,' he said. "That's what we've tried to build. Any style that we see, we have something for, and the part about it is these guys are getting more comfortable. Any style, we can play; and the more comfortable they get, the better our team will get."