Purple Aces learn 'numbers don't lie' with loss to Fairfield to conclude trip

Gabe Spinelli looks for an option against Fairfield.
Gabe Spinelli looks for an option against Fairfield.

SAVANNAH, Ga. — David Ragland wasn’t happy with his team’s offensive play. The first-year University of Evansville men’s basketball coach let the players on the floor know his dissatisfaction for the showing while organizing for a Fairfield inbounds pass.

“They’re way more aggressive,” he said. “Go to the basket.”

Gabe Spinelli listened. On the next possession, he drove to the rim, layed it in and got the foul. The next involvement, however, was the plague of the night.

He missed the free throw.

Spinelli was far from alone in missing shots from the line. In their final game of the Hostilo Hoops Community Classic, the Purple Aces lost 63-56 to Fairfield, shooting a dismal 41% from the free throw line on 17 attempts.

“Men lie, women lie; numbers don’t. Right now, we’re just not very good from the free-throw line,” Ragland said. “That’s just something we’ll work on to address in the coming days.”

The loss denied UE its first winning streak since beating Valparaiso in back-to-back games in 2021. While there were some questionable calls down the stretch, they didn’t make the most of the chances they had at the stripe to begin with.

Kenny Strawbridge Jr. drives to the basket against Fairfield.
Kenny Strawbridge Jr. drives to the basket against Fairfield.

In front of an almost-ghostly atmosphere at Enmarket Arena, UE dropped to a 2-6 record and lost momentum from its win over Robert Morris. The Aces coaching staff was incensed after Preston Phillips was called for a flop after other calls they didn’t like, but UE simply didn’t take advantage of what the game offered and lost despite Kenny Strawbridge Jr.’s game-high 25 points.

When Strawbridge fouled out with 13 seconds to play, there was little doubt about the outcome.

“(We) just have to be confident with what we do and we put in the work,” Strawbridge said. “Just believe in the process that we put in.”

The loss represents a missed opportunity for UE. Fairfield was rated 98 spots higher than the Aces in the KenPom rankings, and if UE played as well as it did in the second half against RMU, Sunday’s game ends with a different result.

“It’s basketball (and) it’s life all wrapped into one,” Ragland said. “The difference 24 hours can make, it humbles you real quick. You got to understand, know how to handle your laughs and your cries.”

But the Aces didn’t play well. They shot 23% from the 3-point line in addition to the poor showing from the charity stripe.

“We just gotta let go of it,” Strawbridge said. “We can’t be dreading about this loss. We just gotta prepare for the next game.”

Preston Phillips looks for a pass against Fairfield.
Preston Phillips looks for a pass against Fairfield.

Ragland took the blame for parts of the game. He said he could’ve done better when UE was going on some of its runs to keep the Aces’ momentum. UE knows it missed an opportunity heading into Wednesday’s conference opener against Southern Illinois, but the key now is making sure Sunday’s loss doesn’t set the tone for the rest of the season.

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“At the end of the day, we’re going to continue to believe in them,” Ragland said. “This is our group, our team. It ain’t changing.”

Scoring droughts and poor shooting aside, Ragland feels the trip to Savannah helped his team grow. He pointed to how his players bonded off the court and how the three games in as many days could prepare the Aces for the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament in March.

Strawbridge was also confident that the loss is more of a learning experience than a detriment.

“(The season) is going to be up-and-down, that’s what we knew coming in,” Strawbridge said. “We just gotta stay focused on the big picture. Our group chat is called ‘MVC Champs’ for a reason. That’s what we believe in.”

For the group chat name to become a reality, UE needs to improve its offensive game. Defensively, the Aces have shown good flashes. Offensively, they haven’t been consistent enough.

Just look at the free-throw and 3-point numbers to see that.

“These guys have played basketball for a long time, we believe in them,” Ragland said. “Guys just got to step up, make free throws, which they’re very capable of doing. Make shots — which we’re very capable of doing, and we’ll do that moving forward.”

This article originally appeared on Evansville Courier & Press: Evansville men's basketball loses to Fairfield on poor shooting night