With more student managers on the bench than players, the margin of error has been small for Robert Morris the past month.
Despite an 8-1 record in that span, the Colonials' success was built on a fragile foundation. Much like a tower of Jenga blocks, if one piece was removed -- regardless of how small it was -- everything could crumble.
Thursday night, after an injury to the team's (literally) biggest piece, it appeared that at least a little crumbling was on its way.
But no such thing happened in the wake of an ankle injury to center Stephan Hawkins, the team's tallest player at 6 feet 9.
Hawkins went down midway through the first half, prompting LIU Brooklyn to build a double-digit lead that held up most of the game. Then, the Colonials scored 28 of the final 36 points for a 73-64 win at Sewall Center.
"I feel like we've worked too hard throughout the conference season to let this one slip away," guard Karvel Anderson said.
"We let one slip away earlier in the season and we knew this would be another one we'd regret. We've worked too hard, we've come too far, we've overcome some adverse things, and LIU wasn't going to be the thing to beat us."
Trailing by 16 points early in the second half, Anderson spearheaded Robert Morris' late run, scoring all his game-high 26 in the final 18 minutes.
After staring down a 56-45 deficit with 8:52 remaining, the Colonials (17-11, 12-1 Northeast Conference) finished on a 28-8 run to secure their 12th victory in their past 13 games. The win clinched at least a share of the conference championship.
In the beginning, it looked as if they would need no such surge as they rushed to a 24-17 lead. But once Hawkins went down, the game's complexion changed rapidly.
In the final 11:23 of the first half, Robert Morris made only two field goals while the Blackbirds (8-17, 3-9 NEC) enjoyed a 22-5 run after Hawkins left. The result: The Colonials trailed, 39-29, at halftime.
The Blackbirds maintained a double-digit lead much of the second half, but, with nine minutes remaining, the Colonials started a run of their own. Holding LIU Brooklyn to one basket over nearly nine minutes, Robert Morris took a 64-61 lead with 2:08 left -- its first lead since 7:47 of the first half. The Colonials never again trailed.
"We were kind of along for the ride just like everyone else was," Robert Morris coach Andy Toole said. "At some point in time -- I'm not exactly sure when it was -- guys just rallied together and started playing with an energy, enthusiasm and togetherness that was fun to watch. It was an incredible effort and incredible comeback."
Guard David Appolon played a key role, too, chipping in with a career-high 13 points for the Colonials.
Toole said he doesn't know the extent of Hawkins' injury or how long he might be out, but there is a possibility that Robert Morris could be down to seven players.
But, on a team that has managed to excel after losing streaks, suspensions and defections, the players see it as just another hurdle.
"Overcoming adversity is just something that we do," Anderson said. "We enjoy doing it and we're getting pretty good at it."
Craig Meyer: email@example.com and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG First Published February 20, 2014 9:31 PM