By Jim Henry
Globe Sports Editor
It hasn’t been a big adjustment for Stephen Atkinson since he moved into the Missouri Southern starting lineup two games ago.
“Either way, coming off the bench or starting, you have to have the mindset to be ready to play as soon as you’re called on,” Atkinson said. “It’s just keeping my mindset ready from the get-go instead of just watching the game, getting a feel for it from the bench.”
Atkinson scored a career-high 20 points in the Lions’ 69-39 victory over Central Bible College on Tuesday night, raising his season average to 8.6 points.
The Lions open MIAA play today at Truman State, and Atkinson has some words of advice for the Lions’ seven new players.
“It is a very contact conference,” he said. “It’s aggressive. You have to be strong with the ball. You have to be ready to play every night. The refs aren’t going to give you ticky-tack fouls. You have to be strong and just go through people. ... You can’t fade (away) and get a call in this league.”
The Lions won an MIAA-like game at Arkansas Tech 58-50 one week ago.
“The win at Arkansas Tech was such a huge boost for us as we’re going on the road against Truman from the standpoint that our guys understand how we have to play,” Lions coach Robert Corn said. “Probably our two best games — at West Texas A&M (a two-point loss) and at Arkansas Tech (eight-point victory) — those were grind-it-out games. And from this point on, we’re going to have 18 of them.”
The Lions have averaged more than 81 points per game in each of the last three seasons, but that won’t be the case this year. The Lions averaged 67.4 points in their first eight games — 61.8 points in their last five games against NCAA Division II opponents.
“This team is going to be a grind-it-out basketball team,” Corn said. “Two years ago (when the Lions won the conference title by three games), that team could either beat you with its offense or its defense. Last year’s team (fourth place, one game behind the tri-champions), we could beat you with our offense, but we couldn’t beat you with our defense.
“This year’s team, I don’t think we’re going to beat anybody with our offense. We’re going to have to beat you with our defense. Any time you have that type of team, every possession is going to be magnified because you’re not going to get as many possessions as you would if you were playing a fast-paced game. It’s going to be very important that we take care of the basketball.”
Truman State prevailed 71-69 Wednesday night at Missouri Western, the first time in six seasons that the Bulldogs have won their conference opener.
Mike Carlson, 6-foot-9 junior, scored 19 points — three above his season average — to lead four Bulldogs in double figures. The Bulldogs hit 12-of-37 3-point attempts — they took only 19 shots inside the arc — and a trey by Cole Myers with 26 seconds left proved to be the difference.
Atkinson, who also grabbed a career-high seven rebounds against CBC, averaged 2.1 points and 1.8 rebounds in 9.0 minutes off the bench last season. He averaged 19 points and 10 rebounds as a senior at Marshall County High School in Benton, Ky., helping the Marshalls to a 28-7 record and an Elite Eight appearance in the state tournament at the University of Kentucky’s Rupp Arena.
Atkinson said his second year with the Lions is easier, partly because he’s added 10 pounds since last season.
“I’ve gained some weight, got stronger in the weight room,” Atkinson said. “I really worked on that in the summer, to get stronger. That’s really helped me out.”
Atkinson’s 10-pound weight gain pushes him to 195.
“I’d like to get to 205 or 210, maybe more than that,” he said.