SMITHFIELD – Jared Grasso will tell you it’s OK that the Bryant men’s basketball team doesn’t have that scorer. That would tell you the Bulldogs have plenty of players to fill the role vacated by the irreplaceable Peter Kiss. He’ll tell you on any given night, any of those players could be that guy. It is not wrong.
But with how Saturday went, it really looks like Sheriff Gross-Bullock is it.
Binghamton tried pre-game bully tactics to shake up the America East newcomers, then pounced on Bryant early in the first half. Gross-Bullock took over carrying the load and his quick offense seemed to energize the Bulldogs. The defense got better, the lead shrunk and while Bryant couldn’t turn the lead over comfortably, he did enough to hold on 82-78 in his conference debut.
“He’s a really, really smart player and he stepped up and made some shots,” Grasso said. “He made some really big plays when we needed them.”
Bryant didn’t have to worry about being the go-to scorer last season. The Bulldogs had Peter Kiss, who had no problem getting buckets regardless of the situation.
This season is different. You’re not replacing a player like Kiss, and to his credit, Grasso never claimed the team would try and do that.
But a basketball team still needs a friend, the kind of player who wants the ball in clutch situations and consistently executes when his number is called. While Charles Pride seemed like a strong candidate, Pride is better as a complimentary piece. He thrived on that last year and while teams are paying more attention to him, he doesn’t seem to fit being the No. 1 scorer. The same can be said for transfer Doug Edert, who made a name for himself as a shooter in St. Peter’s last March. Edert can light up the scoreboard in a hurry, but he does it in the flow of the offense.
Gross-Bullock could be that player. For most of Saturday’s matinee, finding the best player on the court didn’t require a PhD in basketball. Gross-Bullock let the offense come to him and while he had no problem attacking the hoop, it was a pair of step-back 3-pointers that almost threw his defenders to the floor that seemed to spark the Bulldogs, who went 30- had gone 20 deficit nine minutes into the lead 31-30 after three minutes.
“After kind of struggling early on, I got on him about a couple of the three shots he shot early,” Grasso said. “I just thought we should have been in more attack mode and we settled down a bit. Then he goes forward and makes five threes and two of them step-backs and after doing that I put my head down and let him go.
Gross-Bullock scored 18 of his game-high 29 points in the first half. He hit three 3-pointers, made five free throws and looked like he wanted the ball in his hands at every moment. His teammates were more than happy to oblige. They watch him play regularly in practice and know what happens when he gets hot.
“He’s doing his thing. He’s been doing it since we were kids — played the same way,” said Earl Timberlake, who grew up together in Washington, D.C. “Once he sees one go in, the rim gets bigger. .He just kept shooting.
“He had it going from the beginning. He’s a great player once he gets it going and he can just keep stringing along, stringing along,” Bryant’s Tyler Brailsford said. “Once he gets two threes to go, the next one he’s going to go from is the beginning. He was ready to play.”
With Gross-Bullock carrying the load on offense, Bryant finally started to wake up on the defensive side of the ball.
The Bulldogs’ wakeup call should come pregame. It was there that Binghamton reserve Ador Athui took it upon himself to trash-talk Bryant as he stood at midcourt, leading to a small skirmish that was quickly broken up by coaches.
Nine minutes in what looked like mind games by the Bearcats’ senior center — who logged zero minutes in the game — would have contributed. Bryant was flat defensively, struggling to keep up with the pace Binghamton was setting and not moving fast enough to close on shots.
Down 30-20, the Bulldogs picked up their game. The Fat-Bulls were getting baskets but suddenly the defense looked crisp. It wasn’t a big play that did it; It was just trying. Every jump shot Binghamt took was a nail away from being tipped; When the Bearcats attacked the hoop, Bryant fought back physically and without fouling. Whatever rhythm Binghamton had early on was gone, and when the Bearcats took a 41-40 lead into the locker room, it looked like Bryant was in control.
“I said guys if we are not careful we will give up 140 points. This is embarrassing right now,” Grasso said. “There is no urgency to rescue. It felt like our game in Manhattan where we could just trade baskets and win. It doesn’t work that way. “
The teams traded leads back and forth in the second half, but neither team could really extend it to anything more than two possessions. Bryant finally caught it for good at 68-67 on a Brailsford 3-pointer with 7:42 left, and while the Bulldogs couldn’t make it something comfortable, they did enough on both ends of the court to keep it going. Brailsford knocked down a pair of free throws with 10 seconds left to take the lead by three, and after Binghamton missed a free throw, Gross-Bullock won with one from the line.
“It’s not really pressure, like practices, workouts, stuff like that,” Brailsford said. “After every workout I have to finish the workout with 10 free throws in a row so that goes back into our training. I knew they were good when I stepped on the line.
Both Timberlake and Brailsford said Saturday’s game was no different than the non-conference games Bryant played in November and December. While that may be true, the game is definitely more important – and the next game is more important.
The Bulldogs open 2023 on the road, traveling north to face traditional America East power Vermont on Thursday. It may be just another conference game, but it’s a bit more than the big conference games Bryant has played in the past.
“Like coach said, we just have to come in and have three good days of practice,” Brailsford said. “We’ll definitely be ready when the time comes and we’ll be ready to play.”
“They set the bar for what the America East Conference is,” Grasso said. “We’ll have our hands full on the road with a sellout crowd against a really, really good team.”