Just a few minutes into Saturday’s game against New Mexico, and the Austin Toros were already down big.
Maybe it was the early noon start time, or maybe the Toros were tired from the beating they took at the hands of the same New Mexico team on Thursday, a televised 93-104 loss. Whatever the cause, the Thunderbirds had already jumped out to a 10-0 lead against the Toros.
But then, Austin began to claw their way back into it. Thanks to a couple of small scoring spurts, the Toros cut a 14-point deficit down to three at halftime.
The second half started at the Cedar Park Center and saw much of the same — the Toros keeping it close. Close enough — and buoyed by 80-percent free throw shooting and a staunch defense — that a Kevin Palmer layup with 44 seconds left in the fourth quarter tied the game at 99. The game went into overtime, and the Toros managed to pull out a gutsy, come-from-behind 105-103 win. And that, you could say, has been the tale of their season so far.
“For some reason, this team likes to start slow and come from behind,” said forward Leo Lyons. “We’re still working on that, but we’re trying to fix it.”
On Saturday, the Toros were able to close the gap. The rest of the season, however, has been a different story. They currently sit second-to-last in the West Conference standings at 12-15, just one year after advancing to the semifinals of the NBA Developmental League playoffs.
But things are looking up. Half of the season remains to be played, and if Austin can avoid any more major tumbles (they lost six straight games earlier in the season), they could play their way into playoff contention.
“I feel like we’re a tough team, but sometimes we just have our lapses where we’re not as sharp as we need to be,” said forward Lance Thomas. “But I think we’re figuring it out. We realize that we have to give our best every game, so we’re making strides.”
A couple of mid-season acquisitions should continue to give the team an extra boost. Lyons and guard Aubrey Coleman, the NCAA scoring leader a year ago at Houston, both came to the team in early January after stints overseas. Both have been upgrades for the Toros, as Coleman is scoring 16 points per game and Lyons is displaying the well-rounded overall game that got him noticed in college at Missouri, averaging 10 points and nearly six rebounds per contest. But both have had to make adjustments to fit in with their new team, learning the schemes and fitting in to their expected roles.
“I’ve been learning on the fly, trying to get used to the new system,” Coleman said. “In college, they ran the plays through me and now I’m coming off the bench. I don’t just worry about scoring now. I have to play defense and rebound and do the little things to help the team win.”
Head coach Brad Jones has been able to find a nice rotation on a team stacked with young and improving players. Lance Thomas, a NCAA champion last year at Duke, has put in hours of work on his jump shot and continues to improve. Starting center Marcus Cousin might be the most NBA-ready player on the team, averaging almost 15 points and nine rebounds per game. Point guard Carldell Johnson, a fan favorite and Toros veteran of four years, paces the team with six assists per game.
The Toros have their eyes on the playoffs. The climb will be steep, but they’re used to that.