CHARLESTON – Opposing coaches have, at this point, thrown every possible style of defense at Nick Mayo.
He’s seen double-teams. He’s seen one-on-ones. Opponents have switched and not switched, played zone and man defenses. None has proven to be an antidote to his skill set that includes a 3-point shot, an array of post moves and vision that allows him to pass out of the post, all at 6-foot-9 and 250 pounds.
So it wasn’t the schematic decisions Eastern Illinois deployed that made Mayo miss 15 shots, including one with six seconds left that would have given Eastern Kentucky a one-point lead. Rather, EIU’s personnel and preparation harassed him for the entire night, with Rade Kukobat and Aboubacar Diallo as the main instigators.
“We just stood our ground, honestly,” Kukobat said. “I don’t think we tried to give him anything extra, I don’t think we tried to be macho man with him and body him back or anything. Just play defense, move where he was moving and body up when he gets around the rim.”
That pair, largely operating in one-on-one situations, landed repeated punches on Mayo. In the first half, he made just one of his eight field goal attempts and picked up his second foul with 2:39 left when he extended an elbow into Kukobat’s chest. Mayo recorded a 15-point, 10-rebound double-double, but EIU made sure everyone in Lantz Arena left understanding how difficult that was to attain. Forcing Mayo into a straight jacket for 34 minutes keyed a 67-66 win that improved EIU’s conference record to 6-3.
“That’s an awful good player when you can have a double-double on a night you feel like is an off night,” EIU coach Jay Spoonhour said.
The plan was to guard Mayo with one defender and not send help. Spoonhour and EIU’s coaching staff were wary of leaving EKU’s shooters open if a guard dropped down into the paint to double-team. Mayo entered the game averaging 2.5 assists, and plenty of them come when he passes out of a double-team to an open shooter. Sure enough, both of Mayo’s assists Thursday came on 3-pointers.
EIU’s interior defenders, though, ensured that wasn’t a common theme. Diallo and Kukobat did enough of the work on their own and required help only a few times. Kukobat, when matched up with him, forced Mayo into a few uncomfortable fallaway jumpers. He didn’t allow him to back too deep into the paint.
Diallo did the same, but he has another tool on his belt. EIU’s best shot-blocker stuffed Mayo twice in the first 2:30 of the second half, each in a post-up situation when Mayo turned around to fire a jumper.
“That’s a great night for him,” Kukobat said.
Added Spoonhour: “Bouba’s hard to score on. If he played enough minutes, he’d be in the top five in the country in block percentage.”
According to KenPom, Diallo’s 12.6 block percentage would rank ninth nationally if he qualified. He’s EIU’s only rim protector and his value is entirely dependent on his ability to hold ground in the post and block shots. He didn’t attempt a shot in 21 minutes Thursday. He’s out there to defend and do it by himself.
“It hurts us offensively when he’s out there, though he did a good job screening tonight,” Spoonhour said. “He’s as good as anybody around defending the post. We don’t have to drop and help much at all when he’s out there.”
Spoonhour’s strategy with Diallo is to deploy him in the starting lineup and play him in the opening minutes so EIU is less likely to fall behind. Beyond that, he comes in if another forward is in foul trouble or EIU needs stops more baskets late in games.
In the final 13 minutes, Spoonhour alternated between Diallo and Kukobat five times. When EIU needed offense and its best press-break team on the floor, Diallo came out. When EIU could ill afford a Mayo basket, Diallo came into the game.
With 5:22 left EIU leading 62-60, Spoonhour inserted Kukobat, hoping that the better offensive unit could put the game away. EKU also had figured out a way to get Diallo switched onto a guard to its advantage and exploited that to give its guards a couple easy layups and short jumpers.
Instead, Mayo drilled a jumper over Kukobat and then drew a foul on him. EIU didn’t score.
“He kept shooting,” Kukobat said. “He made some.”
In came Diallo. He prevented an avalanche, but picked up his fourth and fifth fouls. His night ended with 2:11 left and EIU trailing 66-64. Mayo was now Kukobat’s task alone. He handled it with aplomb. Mayo missed a putback chance with 29 seconds left, and Kukobat filched the rebound.
And on that final shot from Mayo? Kukobat did what he had all game.
“Just stay down and be ready to move my feet.”