The opportunity was there for Devon Hancock on Thursday, and he made sure to take full advantage.
Afforded ample playing time due to a COVID-19 outbreak that affected a couple of key players, the freshman guard set career highs with 18 points and 6 three-pointers to help lead UW-Milwaukee to a 74-52 victory over Saint Xavier at UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena.
Four other players scored in double figures as well for the Panthers, who were without star freshman Patrick Baldwin Jr., senior guard Josh Thomas and seldom-used junior center Samba Kane after the school announced just prior to tip that “health and safety protocols” would leave them short-handed against their NAIA opponent from Chicago.
Enter Hancock, a Dallas native whose 27 minutes off the bench fell two shy of his total for the season coming into the afternoon.
Hancock had also failed to score in the six previous games in which he’d seen action, missing all three shots he’d taken.
“He works all the time,” said coach Pat Baldwin. “Never afraid whenever someone asks him to do more, even though his opportunities weren’t as often as he probably wanted. It’s a testament to him and his work ethic.
“When your opportunity comes you have to take advantage of it, and he definitely did.”
Hancock displayed an ability to shoot the ball from deep in limited opportunities last season, averaging 2.9 points in 19 games, but he found himself buried deep at the end of the bench with more experienced players ahead of him in the rotation.
“It’s hard. But as I progress and keep going, I understand what the circumstances are,” Hancock said. “I just feel like, if you keep working and wait until your time comes, you’ll be ready.”
And Hancock was ready coming into this one.
“Me and Coach talked about that before, seeing our numbers going down and people going out,” he said. “So, I just had to step up my work even more.”
The 6-foot-3 Hancock was in the first wave of substitutions, and he set the tone by knocking down his first shot, a three from the right wing a little more than three minutes into the game.
“The first shot that I got, it was all net, so I knew that was I was going to be on today because it didn’t even hit the rim,” he said.
He connected on two more in nine first-half minutes as the Panthers took a 34-25 halftime lead.
Hancock’s final 3 threes came in a span of about four minutes midway through the second half, and helped UWM (3-8) finally gain some breathing room in a game that both teams had mostly slogged through to that point.
He had a couple of opportunities to set a team high with his seventh three late in the game but couldn’t get the ball to fall. Baldwin Jr. hit all six of his three-point tries in a victory over Robert Morris on Dec. 4.
On a team that’s been highly inconsistent from beyond the arc (30.9%), Hancock’s showing may well have bumped him into more regular minutes moving forward.
“(The shooting) is a definite strength for him, and we’ve got to try to maximize it when he’s on the floor,” Baldwin said. “Sometimes his shot may not come from the standpoint of us running plays for him; it’s him sprinting out in transition. Then he started getting some plays called for him.
“We’ve got to take advantage of that, and try to find ways to get him out on the floor. It was a welcome sight to see some threes go down today.”
Why was UWM playing an NAIA team at this point in the season?
“Throughout the entire non-conference schedule, we had difficulty scheduling opponents,” Baldwin explained. “So we settled on the teams we had, and they were all very good.
“You see all across college basketball, a lot of it has to do with the dates. Do they match up? And certainly now, a lot of teams were done after finals and weren’t playing until they got to their conference slate.
“This was the best time we could fit in an opponent. Listen, with scheduling, it’s a tough deal. You’re trying to find home games, the right opponent. Obviously in our situation sometimes we have to get some guarantee games. So, you have to fit them in where you can.
“And this is just where this game slotted in.”
Now, the Panthers will cross their fingers they can get Baldwin Jr. and Thomas back and not have any other players contract COVID-19 before beginning a five-game Horizon League road swing on Dec. 30 at Wright State.
“We’re off until the 26th, so hopefully they can get back by that point and then we can start practicing and get ready for Wright State,” Baldwin said.