With Tulane almost hopelessly behind Tulsa late in the second half, reserve forward Payton Henson suddenly came alive on Tuesday night.
He hit a jump shot to close the gap to 51-39 at the 5:31 mark. He drained a 3-pointer to cut the deficit to 55-45 a little later. He scored on a putback to make the score 55-50 with 1:10 left. He sank three free throws in the final minute.
Tulane (13-8, 4-5 American Athletic Conference) lost 62-55, but it could use a heck of a lot more help like that from its bench to end a three-game slide on Saturday at Temple (14-7, 5-3).
Coach Ed Conroy has searched in vain all year for scoring production from the backups, hoping to relieve some of the burden on starting guards Louis Dabney, Jay Hook and Jonathan Stark.
Aside from Henson’s outburst against Tulsa, Conroy is still looking, but he has not given up.
“We spend a lot of time on individual development and focusing on their skills,” he said. “I’m still hopeful that between us executing as a team and the confidence those guys are developing, that we can find that punch as we go down the stretch. I don’t think it’s unreasonable that it could happen. I think it’s fairly close.”
While Dabney, Hook and Starks account for 37 of Tulane’s 67.9 points per game, freshman center Dylan Osetkowski is the only reserve averaging more than 6.0 points, and he plays starter’s minutes. Backup guards Kajon Mack has hit 30 field goal in 21 games (3.8 ppg), and second-string point guard Keith Pinckney averages 2.6 points. Henson (5.8 ppg) is connecting on a paltry 34.6 percent of his shots.
Someone from that latter trio needs to score more consistently, particularly since backup guard Cameron Reynolds is not close to returning from an injured finger he sustained in mid-December. Although Reynolds, who averaged 5.2 points, took shots before practice on Thursday, Conroy said it was unclear whether he would return this year.
The issues for each reserve vary.
Henson plays aggressively but has struggled to make shots since he arrived last season. His field goal percentage as a freshman was .336, and he went 9-for-42 (21.4 percent) in the 11-game stretch before Tulsa. His 3-pointer during Tulane’s late run stopped a string of 18 misses dating back to Dec. 16.
Mack, a 6-foot-3 redshirt sophomore, does not have a polished game. He scored on a spectacular alley oop at the end of the first half against SMU on Jan. 21 but frequently is passive in half-court sets, taking only 11 shots in the last five games.
Pinckney, a highly touted freshman, committed too many turnovers early in the year, making it hard for Conroy to take Stark off the floor. In the last two games, though, Pinckney played 15 minutes against Memphis and 12 against Tulsa, scoring on two drives and a pull-up jumper.
“I had to adjust to the speed of the game and the quality of players every night in and every night out,” he said. “It surprised me, but I’m learning, growing and getting better. It’s just a matter of relaxing and playing. When I do that, things just turn out better. When you think too much, things don’t tend to go well.”
With only one made 3-pointer in six attempts, Pinckney lacks an outside shot. His strength is driving to the basket.
“This a big month for him coming up here,” Conroy said. “We certainly need him to give us some punch off the bench.”
Otherwise, the Wave will keep getting knocked down. When Tulane played Temple on Jan. 7 at Devlin Fieldhouse, Henson, Pinckney and Mack combined to go 1 for 9 from the floor in a 64-56 loss.
As the recent stretch has proven, that’s a losing formula for Tulane.
“We need those guys to find a lot of different ways to contribute,” Conroy said. “One of them is execution on the offensive end.”