By Dan Harrison
---- — SALEM — The Salem State men’s basketball team hasn’t played in front of a big home crowd yet this season, since all of their games thus far at the Twohig Gymnasium have come either the night before Thanksgiving or during Christmas break.
But that hasn’t stopped the Vikings from becoming a dominant home team.
Last night at home in the team’s first Massachusetts State College Athletic Conference game of the season, Salem State defeated Fitchburg State 72-60.
“Beyond the simple comfort of being in your own gym, I think good teams find a way to win at home if even when they don’t play their best,” said Salem State (8-5) head coach Chris Harvey. “I didn’t think we played a great game, but we found a way to win.”
The Rams opened the game with a 5-0 lead but the Vikings reclaimed the quickly thereafter and led by seven points at the break. Consistent dribble-drive penetration from Viking guards Bryan Ortiz, Andrew White and Anthony Hodges helped take the wind out of FSU’s sails.
“They wore us down,” said Rams head coach Titus Manderson, who both played and coached previously at Salem State. “They have very quick guards and they continued to penetrate. They are a good, talented team. But I’m proud of my kids.”
Guard Mike Ingram-Rubin of the Rams (0-10) got off to a scorching start and finished with a game-high 26 points. Ingram-Rubin did most of his damage in the opening half, though, and at the beginning of the second stanza, when SSU increased its lead to double digits, the Vikings kept him at bay with good help defense.
“Mike (Ingram-Rubin) is a special player. He does a little bit of everything,” said Harvey. “If you’re up too close on him he has the ability to get by you. If you relax on him, he has range. If he was going to beat us, he was going to beat us from deep.”
After the intermission, the hosts started converting from downtown. The Vikings, led by Nick Grassa (16 points), converted more opportunities from the outside, rendering the FSU zone ineffective.
Ortiz missed significant time due to foul trouble and while the offense wasn’t spectacular, guys like Grassa and Hamed Akanni were able to make timely buckets to keep the Rams from making a run.
“We scored 72 points tonight and that’s a little lower than we would have liked,” explained Harvey. “Grassa shot the ball well and that kept us ahead. Three-point shooting we were 2 of 11 in the first half and 7 of 11 in the second half. There’s the difference in the game.”
Harvey went on to speak about Akanni, who was the Vikings leading scorer with 19 points on 8-of-12 shooting. Early on, Akanni — who is extremely undersized for a forward — established himself on the block with a few smooth, turnaround jumpers. Then in the second half, he nailed a couple of three-pointers for good measure.
“He’s a unique kid. He’s only 6-foot-2 at best,” noted Harvey. “He plays a lot bigger than that. He’s a strong, tough kid who wants the ball in big moments.”