They have won five straight since a loss at third-ranked Maryland, and with two nonconference games left, they are building confidence, rhythm and depth ahead of the Atlantic 10 opener against Virginia Commonwealth in four weeks.
Saturday’s triumph was a struggle for 25 minutes. The Eagles (3-5) led by six when the Patriots embarked on a 36-8 surge over 14 minutes and shot 50 percent in the second half to improve to 7-0 in Fairfax.
In his longest stint of the season, Kier played 25 minutes and scored a team-high 14 points. The standout, though, was 6-foot-1 freshman guard Xavier Johnson, an Episcopal High graduate who came off the bench to score 12 points, lead the team with nine rebounds and play smothering defense on AU star Sa’eed Nelson.
Averaging 18.7 points on pace to become the program’s all-time leading scorer, Nelson was blanked in the second half -- he only got off two shots -- and finished with seven points, his weakest performance in almost a year.
Mark Gasperini had 13 points and nine rebounds for the Eagles, who committed 17 turnovers and shot 6 for 16 from the free throw line.
“I started picking him up full court, just denying him the ball and making him work for it,” Johnson said of Nelson. “It was difficult. He is very experienced. I just tried to give him everything I had on defense.”
Johnson has been among several players to take a greater role while Kier was sidelined and then in a limited role.
“It’s not always good to get hurt, but something great came out of my injury because guys stepped up and matured, and now, as you see, our guys are a lot better,” Kier said. “It wasn’t just one person that had to step up. Everyone had to step up as a group and as leaders, and we’ve gotten better since the day I got hurt to now. Every single day.
“We’re sitting here at 10-1, but we’ve got to get better, for sure.”
Trailing 38-32, the Patriots forced turnovers and misses while beginning to click on offense to take charge.
“That was a great defensive effort in the second half,” Patriots Coach Dave Paulsen said. “We told our guys — we tell them constantly — we are built to win 52-50 or 82-50, but it’s got to be the 50.”
In the first half, the Patriots struggled at both ends. Foul trouble to A.J. Wilson, a 12.3-point scorer, 9.5-per-game rebounder and one of the nation’s top shot blockers, hurt the cause.
At one point, neither team made a field goal for almost seven minutes. The Patriots led by six before the Eagles ended the half on an 11-2 surge, capped by Ben Lubarsky’s three-pointer with two seconds left, for a 30-27 lead.
Although Wilson collected his third foul shortly after intermission, the Patriots finally found their groove. The intensity rose, and the defense tightened. Transition baskets and penetration by the guards overwhelmed the Eagles.
“We stopped scoring,” Eagles Coach Mike Brennan said, “and our defense falls apart, too.”
Nine consecutive points, including Johnson’s layup and free throw, put the Patriots ahead for good. Javon Greene scored 10 of his 13 points in the first 10 minutes of the second half.
A doctor’s exam Wednesday allowed Kier to play as many minutes as Paulsen saw fit.
However, after watching his senior guard struggle against Jacksonville State on Tuesday, the fifth-year coach said in jest that he told Kier, “The doctor might say you’re off the minutes restriction, but you keep throwing the ball all over the place like Tuesday, I am putting you on a minutes restriction.”