Army basketball coach Jimmy Allen didn’t sleep especially well Saturday night. His team had lost its Patriot League season opener earlier that day to Colgate. The final score was 101-57.
He is, however, a very good basketball coach — Saturday’s result notwithstanding.
On Sunday, Army and Colgate played again. Same place — Cotterell Court at Colgate. Same two teams. Slightly different result: Army 75, Colgate 73. For those scoring at home, that’s a 46-point turnaround in less than 24 hours.
“Did we celebrate after it was over?” Allen said, repeating what was clearly a rhetorical question. “You better believe we celebrated.”
On Sunday night, it was Colgate Coach Matt Langel’s turn to lose some sleep.
“I pointed out to the guys on Sunday morning that Boise State had won [Thursday against San Jose State] by  and then won on Saturday by one” against the same team, Langel said. “I knew Army would come out wanting to prove they were a lot better than what we saw Saturday. They certainly did that.”
In this pandemic-riddled season, many teams are playing one another on back-to-back days. The only league that regularly plays back-to-back games most years is the Ivy League — but that’s changing opponents from Friday to Saturday. (The Ivy League canceled basketball this winter.)
The reason leagues such as the Patriot, America East, Colonial Athletic Association and Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference are scheduling repeat games on back-to-back days, usually at the same site, is simple: covid-19 travel complications. Most road teams will travel the day of the first game, stay one night in a hotel and then return home after the second game.
Army traveled to Hamilton, N.Y., on Saturday, arriving at about 12:30 after a four-hour bus ride to play a game that tipped at 3 p.m.
“I’m not sure that didn’t affect them,” Langel said. “But the fact that we made just about every shot we looked at was a factor, too.”
Colgate was playing its season opener. Army and Navy were the only Patriot League teams to play any nonconference games, but the Black Knights, who were 4-1 entering the game, hadn’t played since a Dec. 6 victory over La Salle. They also had gone two weeks without practicing because all cadets were sent home for Christmas after final exams.
“It was really like starting all over again for us,” Allen said. “And it was starting for them. If there was any advantage at all, it was that they had film of us and we had none of them. That was not the reason we lost so badly. They were really good; we were really bad.”
Colgate’s five starters shot a combined 29 for 39 from the field, led by their outstanding guards: Nelly Cummings was 9 for 13 for 24 points, and preseason Patriot League player of the year Jordan Burns was 7 for 13 for 20 points and had eight assists. Both sat out most of the second half.
After the game, Allen didn’t scream or rant at his players. He was clinical, telling them that there were some technical changes they would make after coaches had looked at the game film but — more important — that they needed to radically change their mental approach.
“We got punched in the face and didn’t respond,” Allen said. “We’d fallen behind in the La Salle game and did respond, so I knew we had it in us. I told the guys this was on all of us: We got out-coached, outplayed and out-toughed. Pick a category; they were better than us. I also talked to our seniors about how this was one of those moments where they had to be leaders. They’ve been great all fall, really great. But now we needed even more.
“We got embarrassed. We needed to be angry about that — not at Colgate but at ourselves.”
Langel, who played and coached under Fran Dunphy at Penn, has done a remarkable job turning Colgate around in recent years. The Raiders won the Patriot League title two years ago, won the regular season again last winter and won 68 games the past three seasons. Langel expected to see a different Army team Sunday.
“I know how good a coach Jimmy is,” he said. “And they’ve got talent. We had one of those days Saturday where every shot went in. We got to every loose ball. We even got the better of the calls. I knew Sunday would be a lot tougher.” (A note to the basketball Hall of Fame: This quote should be on a wall someplace because Langel may be the first coach in history to say his team got the better whistles in any game).
Unfortunately for Langel, he found out very quickly just how right he was. Colgate took a 2-0 lead and then Army went on an 11-0 run, including making three straight three-point-shots. That was two fewer than it had made Saturday.
Langel called a quick timeout and reminded his players what he had said to them that morning about Boise State and San Jose State. “It was one of those moments where I would have preferred to be wrong,” he said. “I told them — again — that [Army’s] yesterday went as badly as it could possibly go; they had nothing to lose today. We had to respond to the fight they were going to bring to the game.”
The Raiders did that, quickly closing within one, but Army widened the lead to 11 by halftime and was up 15 with 15 minutes to play. If the Black Knights have had a weakness in recent years, it has been hanging on to double-digit leads. Sure enough, Colgate tied the score at 63 and had multiple chances to take the lead.
“We had a couple of very good looks and missed,” Langel said. “You wonder if one had gone in and we’d been in front if the mentality of the last few minutes wouldn’t have been different.”
Instead, Lonnie Grayson, one of the seniors Allen had pulled aside Saturday night, gave Army the lead again at 66-63, making a three from the wing. Colgate again tied the score at 71-71, but Aaron Duhart, who sat out all of last season with an injury, converted an old-fashioned three-point play, and Army hung on to win, 75-73.
“I’ve been lucky enough to be part of championships and some amazing wins," Allen said. “But under the circumstances, this was as good as it gets. We want our program to live up to certain standards. We didn’t do it on Saturday. It meant a lot to all of us to do it Sunday — even if we’d lost the game.”
Langel understood. He even found a bright side to the whole thing. “I said after the game that if those guys are a sample of the people who are going to be fighting for our freedom, I feel pretty good,” he said. “I hope we learned a lesson.” He paused then added, “Of course I’d rather have learned the lesson and gotten out of there with a win.”
Coaches don’t shake hands after games in this covid world. If they had, Langel said his message to Allen would have been simple: “You did a great job.”
He might have added, “See you in four weeks.” Because in the strange season of college hoops, Army and Colgate will meet twice more — at Army — before the end of this month. One thing about those games is almost certain: Both teams will be more than ready to play.