The first half of the year for the Warren Wilson Owls has been like a season within a season for head coach Anthony Barringer, who through the first 15 games of his head coaching career has guided his team to a 7-8 record.
But a seven-game stretch that keeps the Owls away from DeVries Gym for more than a month may be the biggest challenge yet for an up-and-down squad looking to gain ground in the USCAA Division II standings.
With three straight victories, the Owls enjoyed a solid start to the season as opponents struggled to prepare for Barringer’s team’s high-octane offense. The Owls defeated Florida College, Columbia International and Montreat College by an average margin of 12 points. Senior Justin Gonyea led the way offensively.
Turnovers plagued the Owls in their first loss of the season on the road against Toccoa Falls. A concussion kept Gonyea, who leads the team in scoring, sidelined for three games.
The Owls struggled to finish games without Gonyea, Barringer said.
“We should have won against Penn State-Fayette, we lost at the buzzer,” he said. “It was one of those games where we were up six, up eight, but we could never pull away. They made a couple of shots down the stretch and got a lay-up in the final seconds on a tipped ball. It slipped away from us, and we should have closed it out.”
The team’s impressive 5-2 start led to “a sense of complacency,” its coach said, and the Owls dropped five straight games from the middle of November through the early days of December. That stretch included losses such as the 74-70 one to Newberry College, which the Owls lost despite taking a 17-point lead into the half. The team “didn’t finish,” Barrington said.
With back-to-back losses against larger programs Mars Hill and Western Carolina, the Owls fell to below .500 for the first time this season. It was the final game of the losing streak, against the Catamounts, that prompted Barringer to re-consider his team’s offensive approach.
“At the beginning of the year we started two traditional post players and three traditional guard,” he said. “Going into the game against Bob Jones we decided to start our freshman (point guard) Devin Davis with Steven Horton so we had a two-point guard tandem with Devin playing off the ball. We went with a four-guard offense and brought Tyler Triplett off of the bench.”
Barringer’s adjustments paid off in a big way for the Owls, who beat Bob Jones 109-105 in an overtime thriller at home. Triplett, a senior from Morganton, responded to his new role, coming off of the bench in spectacular fashion, scoring 31 points and hitting eight out of 10 from beyond the three-point line.
The performance, which included five rebounds, resulted in his being named USCAA Division II player of the week. But according to Barringer, the statistics only tell part of Triplett’s story that night.
“He only had five rebounds, but he did exactly what I asked him to do,” he said. “Bob Jones had a player that is super- athletic and I told my players, ‘I don’t care if you get a rebound or not, I want him out of the paint.’ Tyler created open lanes for our guards to go in and grab rebounds as well.”
With 19 points, the team’s second-leading scorer against Bob Jones was off-season transfer and Owen alumnus Michael Pomeroy.
“He displayed a confidence against Bob Jones that I haven’t seen from him since he was playing at Owen,” Barringer said. “It’s always been obvious that he can score, but he also defended against them. That’s been something he’s struggled with, defending the ball. But against Bob Jones he defended. And he defended well.”
Pomeroy’s growth is a microcosm of the Owls’ collective transition into Barringer’s system this season. But that maturity will be tested in the coming weeks.
The Owls play five games on the road before they host their next home game Jan. 21 against Piedmont International, who lost to the Owls 82-68 on Dec. 8. Barringer said that his team will certainly be tested by the schedule. But he’s confident that his players are up to the challenge.
“We’ve got 18 road games this year and that can be tough,” he said. “But once we come back from this part of the schedule, then six of our last 10 are at home, and we need that. Historically, we’re really, really good in February at home.”