Emory embraces the pressure

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Adam Gigax
Adam Gigax is the Eagles' leading 3-point shooter and averages 16.5 points per game.
Photo by Dean Reid, d3photography.com

By Brian Lester

Emory is sporting a 10-2 record. Some might view that as impressive. For the Eagles, it’s business as usual.

This is a program accustomed to winning. A program that has won three of the last five UAA championships and a program that has been to five consecutive NCAA Tournaments.

“We just try to win one game at a time and let the chips fall where they may,” Emory coach Jason Zimmerman said. “Our staff does a good job of reminding the team of the success we’ve had in the past and the responsibility they have to continue it. It puts extra pressure on them but it’s a good pressure. Our guys take pride in keeping this program at the level we think we can be at.”

Not every team is willing to embrace that kind of pressure but the Eagles have thrived under it. That is a largely credit to the seniors, Adam Gigax, Whitt Rapp, Donald Avant and Christopher Avant. They arrived on campus the season after Emory reached the Elite Eight and were part of a squad that made the Sweet 16 in 2015.

They understood right away that success was the expectation rather than a hope.

“A high standard had already been set,” Gigax said. “Every practice and every game, we set our sights high and Coach Zimmerman has done a great job of creating a winning culture within our team. Everyone is focused. We all want to be the best we can be.”

The seniors have no idea what it’s like not to be a conference championship contender each year and they don’t know what it’s like not to play in the postseason. So the expectations they go into each season with aren’t difficult to deal with.

“They don’t know any different,” Zimmerman said. “Eight to 10 years ago, it was a different mentality here. We were trying to improve and set the tone for how hard we play. We still have to play hard but we are also striving to win our conference and get to the tournament. The success we’ve had isn’t something the players take for granted.”

Gigax said he and his senior teammates have forged a close bond over the course of their four seasons together – they are even roommates -- and they have taken on leadership roles for a team that welcomed in seven newcomers.

“We lost a really good senior class, but with having that many freshmen, we know they are going to bring a lot of energy to the team,” Gigax said. “For us upperclassmen, it’s about showing them the ropes and we’ve done that. It’s been great seeing so many of them contribute.”

Gigax has done his part to be a leader, ranking second on the team in scoring at 16.5 points per outing. The two-time first-team All-UAA selection leads the team in 3-pointers made as well with 35.

“It’s definitely been an awesome run this year, and there really isn’t any pressure on us,” Gigax said. “We’re just going out and executing our game plan and having fun doing it.”

Chris Avant is putting up 11.6 points per game and is brother, Donald, is averaging 3.3. Rapp has battled injuries and has only played in six games. He’s averaging 7.0 points in those games and has dished out 44 assists as well.

Zimmerman points out that while Rapp may get overlooked at times in terms of media attention, his value to the team cannot be underestimated.

“He’s been our starting point guard for three years and he makes things more comfortable for the players and the coaching staff when he’s on the floor,” Zimmerman said. “He’s battled some injuries but he’s a big part of our success.”

Rapp is healthy again and has the Eagles cruising through a six-game win streak. Putting up 86.6 points per game, Emory is in a rhythm offensively.

The Eagles are giving up 77.8 but Zimmerman has seen his team really settle in defensively after going through a stretch earlier in the year where guarding an opponent proved to be difficult.

“We’re having a good year. I wouldn’t call it great yet because we still have a lot of basketball to play,” Zimmerman said. “We have room to grow. I don’t think we’ve played our best basketball yet.”

Because the UAA doesn’t have a conference tournament, every game carries extra meaning to the Eagles, who are eager to get into the heart of their conference schedule. They won their league opener 80-62 over Rochester Saturday.

“Every game feels like a championship game,” Zimmerman said. “It’s a challenging stretch to go through, and on that stage, you feel like you can’t afford to slip up. Our guys seem to deal with it well.”

Gigax is ready for the challenges ahead and believes the stage is set for another special year.

“We just have to continue the path that we are on,” Gigax said. “We have all the pieces in place and the depth. It’s just a matter of taking it one game at a time and enjoy the rest of this ride.”

Regional notes

Cooling off Brooke Jones isn’t an easy thing to do and the Louisiana College star continues to shine, recording her fifth 20-point game of the season Saturday in the Wildcats’ 67-52 win over Concordia in an ASC game. Jones went off for 23 points, helping Louisiana College put a three-game losing streak on ice. The Wildcats are 7-5 overall and even up their conference record at 3-3. Jones is averaging 17.9 points per game and is also pulling down 7.3 rebounds per outing. She’s been a consistent on the defensive end as well for the reigning ASC tournament runner-up, racking up 26 steals and 12 blocks. Both totals are the best on the team.

Luke Hicks connected on a clutch 3-pointer with under two minutes remaining and lifted Southwestern to a 76-71 win vs. Centenary. The Pirates are 2-0 in the SCAC and sit alone atop the conference standings. They are 6-7 overall and have won two in a row. Hicks had a solid all-around game for the Pirates, scoring 15 points, grabbing five rebounds, dishing out three assists and coming up with two steals. Hicks is a sophomore and has made significant strides since his freshman season when he started only once. He has started 10 games this season and is averaging 7.7 points per outing, nearly two points better than what he averaged last year.

With nine consecutive wins, it’s safe to say Centre is hot. The Colonels won their latest game Sunday, defeating Millsaps 89-72, thanks in large part to. Abigail Stewart. The junior star more than doubled her previous career high, torching the nets to the tune of 36 points as she helped the Colonels improve to 12-1 overall. Clutch throughout the day, Stewart drilled 13 of her 17 attempts from the field and made all 10 of her attempts from the free-throw line. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, she also grabbed six rebounds and blocked three blocks. She missed the single-game scoring record by a point.

Justin Vallejo came to play Saturday in Piedmont’s 80-72 win over William Peace, recording a double-double to propel the Lions to their second consecutive win. It is Piedmont’s third win in its last four games. Vallejo lit up the scoreboard for 21 points and he dominated on the glass to the tune of 11 rebounds. The double-double is his sixth of the year. The former USA South Rookie of the Year has been a consistent contributor throughout his career and is averaging in double figures in points for the second consecutive season.  His average of 17.5 points per game is the best of his career and his rebounding average of 8.7 is also the best of his career.

Brian Lester

Brian Lester is a reporter in Florida. He has 15 years of experience at newspapers in Virginia, North Carolina and Ohio, spending 10 at The Courier in Findlay, Ohio. Lester also writes an Around the Region column for D3football.com and wrote the book Perfect Run as No. 1 about the 2009 Division II men's basketball champions University of Findlay. He is a graduate of Eastern Illinois.