SMITHFIELD — Jared Grasso will tell you the Bryant men’s basketball team doesn’t have that scorer. He will tell you the Bulldogs have a number of players who can fill the role vacated by the irreplaceable Peter Kiss. On any given night, he’ll tell you that any one of those players can be that guy. He is not wrong.
But with the way Saturday went, it looks like Sheriff Gross Bullock is the one.
Binghamton tried a pregame bowl tactic to rattle the America East newcomers, then outscored Bryant in the first half of the first half. Gross Bullock committed to shouldering the load, and his immediate offense seemed to invigorate the Bulldogs. The defense got better, the lead shrunk, and while Bryant couldn’t make the lead comfortable, it was enough to make it 82-78 in its conference debut.
“He’s a very, very gifted player and he stepped up and made some shots,” Grasso said. “He made some really big plays when we needed them.”
Bryant didn’t have to worry about being a productive player last season. The Bulldogs were played by Peter Kiss, who had no problem getting buckets no matter the situation.
This season is different. You don’t replace a player like Kiss, and to his credit, Grasso never claimed the team would try to.
But a basketball team still needs a guy, the type of player who wants the ball in clutch situations and consistently gets the job done when his number is called. While Charles Pride seemed like a strong candidate, Pride is better as a complimentary piece. He excelled at it last year, and while teams are paying more attention to him, the No. 1 scorer doesn’t seem to fit. The same could be said for transfer Doug Edert, who excelled as a marksman at St Peter’s last March. Edert can light up the scoreboard in a hurry, but he does so while on offense.
Gross Bullock could be that player. For most of Saturday’s game, it didn’t take a PhD in basketball to find the best player on the court. Gross-Bullock let the offense come to him, and while he had no trouble attacking the hoop, it was a pair of step-back 3-pointers that nearly sent his defenders to the floor that seemed to spark the Bulldogs, who turned the 30-20 deficit nine minutes into the game. leading for three minutes with 31:30.
“After struggling early, I got him on about a couple of threes that he shot early,” Grasso said. “I just thought we should be more in attack mode, and we settled down a little bit. Then he goes down and ends up making five threes and two of them go away, and then I put my head down and let him go.
Gross Bullock scored 18 of his 29 points in the first half. He hit three 3-pointers, made five free throws and looked like he wanted the ball in his hands at any moment. His teammates were more than happy to oblige. They see him play regularly in practice and know what happens when he gets hot.
“He’s doing his thing. He’s been doing it since we were young, playing the same way,” said Earl Timberlake, who grew up together in Washington. “When he sees one go in, the hoop gets bigger. He just kept shooting.
“He’s just had it from the beginning. Once he gets it going, he’s a great player and he can just go with it,” Bryant’s Tyler Brelsford said. “Once he had a couple of threes left, the next one, he was ready to play from from the very beginning.”
With Gross Bullock taking the load on offense, Bryant finally started to wake up on the defensive end.
The wake-up call for the Bulldogs should have come during pregame. That’s where Binghamton reserve Ador Athuai took it upon himself to talk down Bryant as he stood at midcourt, leading to a small scuffle that was quickly broken up by coaches.
Nine minutes into the game, it looked like his contribution would be the mind games of the Bearcats senior center, who played zero minutes in the game. Bryant was flat defensively trying to keep up with the tempo Binghamton set, and he didn’t rotate quickly enough to close shots.
Down 30-20, the Bulldogs stepped up their game. Gross-Bullock scored baskets, but suddenly the defense looked crisp. It wasn’t one big play that did it; it was just an effort. Every jump shot Binghamton took was one hoof away from being knocked down; when the Bearcats attacked the hoop, Bryant struggled physically and without fouls. Regardless, Binghamton’s early rhythm was gone, and while the Bearcats took a 41-40 lead into the locker room, Bryant appeared to be in control.
“I said, guys, if we don’t defend, we’re going to give up 140 points. It’s uncomfortable right now,” Grasso said. “There’s just no urgency to defend. It felt like we were playing in Manhattan where we could trade baskets and win. It doesn’t work that way.
In the second half, the teams traded the lead back and forth, but neither team really managed to get more than two possessions. Bryant finally made it 68-67 with 7:42 left on a Brailsford 3-pointer, and while the Bulldogs couldn’t make it anything comfortable, they did enough on both ends of the court to keep it close. Brelsford made a pair of free throws with 10 seconds left to cut the lead to three, and after a missed free throw by Binghamton, Gross-Bullock iced the win with one from the line.
“It’s really no pressure, just like training and drills and things like that,” Brelsford said. “After every practice, I have to finish his practice with 10 free throws in a row to get it back into our practices. When I got on the line, I knew they were good.
Both Timberlake and Brelsford said Saturday’s game was no different than the non-conference games Bryant played in November and December. While that may be true, the game was definitely more important — and the next game is even more important.
The Bulldogs open 2023 on the road, traveling north to face traditional America East power Vermont on Thursday. It might just be another conference game, but it’s a bit more than the big conference games Bryant has played in the past.
“Like coach said, we just have to come in and have three good days of practice,” Brelsford said. “We’ll definitely be ready when the time comes and be ready to play.”
“They’ve set the bar for the America East Conference,” Grasso said. “We’ll have our hands full on the road with a sell-out crowd against a really, really good team.”