Impressive road trip brings Fort Wayne closer to ‘being us’

Fort Wayne men's basketball coach Jon Coffman leads his team in a postgame ritual of "riding a wave of positive energy" following his team's win over Indiana Monday in Bloomington. (Photo courtesy of Fort Wayne Athletics)

The Fort Wayne men’s basketball squad has traveled to six states in as many weeks in search of playing smart, efficient, and fast-paced basketball, and the Mastodons may have just discovered what fourth-year coach Jon Coffman has been looking for this past week.

“We’ve been telling our guys,” Coffman said earlier this week, “that we are hunting, hunting a game of being us for 40 minutes.”

The Mastodons came close to fulfilling that quest in a couple of games this week, not so much in Friday’s 85-76 loss to Louisiana Tech in the championship game of the New Orleans Classic. But the effort still wasn’t far off from what Coffman is looking for.

“When we do that,” Coffman explained, “and when adversity strikes, and we get our laser focus on, we’re going to be pretty good.”

The Mastodons (9-6) aren’t perfect, and Friday’s game showed that, as they allowed Louisiana Tech to shoot 52.5 percent, but they are already “pretty good,” and this week definitely demonstrated that.

Entering this week, Fort Wayne had a road game at Indiana, as well as a pair of games on a neutral court against an 8-win Liberty squad that had beaten VCU and Wake Forest, as well as a now-9-win Louisiana Tech squad that nearly beat Alabama on the road before losing by three.

An 0-3 record would not have been a stretch, but Fort Wayne is leaving New Orleans with a 2-1 mark, which given the competition, is more than “pretty good.”

“There was no letdown last year after we beat Indiana,” Coffman explained to following Thursday’s 75-64 win over Liberty. “And in the Indiana game (this year), we did a better job, we got closer to 40 minutes of perfect effort toward executing our details, and we got closer to 40 minutes of being us.”

“Those words mean a lot in our program and that is the terminology that I use.”

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What Fort Wayne did well over the past three games was shoot the ball well from the perimeter, guard a little better, share the ball well and take care of the ball.

In splitting games at Miami (Ohio) and against Stetson last week, the Mastodons only made 10 combined 3-point shots (as opposed to averaging nearly 13 this week), and they combined for just 15 assists in those two games. Heck, Fort Wayne had 15 assists against Louisiana Tech alone, while totaling 29 in the two games earlier this week.

As for turnovers, the Mastodons were averaging 15 per game entering the week, but had just 12 and 11, respectively against Indiana and Louisiana Tech.

Progress is being made.

“In some runs that Miami put on us,” Coffman said, “in some runs that Akron put on us (in a road loss), when we were faced with adversity, we tried to make ‘hero plays,'”

Coffman wasn’t talking about selfishness; he was explaining that his guys sometimes tried to get out of their roles to save the team, which doesn’t work.

In the Indiana game, the Mastodons allowed a 10-point swing over nearly eight minutes to fall behind the Hoosiers, only to respond with 17-4 run to put Indiana (and its 11,000-plus fans) into shell-shock.

Against Liberty, Fort Wayne built a 20-point cushion, only to give 17 points of that away, but responded with a 14-4 run to seal the win.

It was just the opposite on Friday.

Louisiana Tech held a 13-point margin with less than six minutes to go, but the Mastodons fought back to cut their deficit to two points over the ensuing 2:28.

This team can regain its “laser focus” and ability to “be us” quickly, and Fort Wayne is showing that it can sustain that level of play longer and longer as this season progresses.

“We don’t need any heroes,” Coffman said. “Just focus in on the process. We did that against Indiana and that was the light bulb that I wanted our guys to recognize so now we can build for consistency.”

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