With 2:32 left on the clock and Longwood trailing Big South foe Gardner-Webb 64-61, Lancers point guard Tra’Vaughn White fired a cross-court pass to a wide-open Darrion Allen in the corner. Allen, feet already set, received it and let loose a lofting three-point shot that arced toward the basket to the soundtrack of a breathless crowd in Willett Hall.
When the ball fell through, tying the game and sending Longwood’s Willett Hall into a frenzy, Allen and White were already skipping back up court, pointing to each other in an acknowledgement of the big play they both knew was going to happen even before the shot.
Allen admits he would have passed it up in seasons past, opting instead to drive and kick to a teammate. But that was the old Allen. The new Allen took that shot and tied the game, and later he drove to the basket, drew a foul and sank two free throws to tie the game again with 1:28 left.
He is playing with a newfound confidence for Longwood (6-15, 2-6 Big South).
“A lot of my teammates came to me early in the season and said, ‘This is what we need from you,'” said Allen, who has scored in double figures in four of his past five games. “They helped me a lot with that, giving me confidence, and it’s made me a better player and us a better team.”
Allen went on to score a season-high 18 points that night, and even though the Runnin’ Bulldogs eked out a 67-66 win over the Lancers on a last-second free throw, that performance is the latest example of the scorer the 6-2, 165-pound junior has become.
In his first two seasons, Allen was billed as a defensive stopper, a key reserve who could guard on the perimeter and hold his own in the post, but one who readily took a back seat on the offensive end of the court. Entering Wednesday’s 7 p.m. matchup against Radford, however, Allen is averaging 9.2 points, 4.0 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.5 steals per game — all career highs for a player who is finally realizing his potential. The Lancers play at UNC-Asheville Saturday at noon ET on ASN.
“DJ can rebound the ball, he can block shots, he can steal the ball, he can make threes, he can dunk, he can finish, he can shoot mid-range and he can shoot free throws. He’s always been able to do those things, and that’s why we recruited him,” said third-year head coach Jayson Gee, who signed Allen as part of his first recruiting class at Longwood.
“The difference this season has nothing to do with anything he’s improved basketball-wise. It has everything to do with his commitment to a mindset of being aggressive and really understanding how talented he is.”
Allen is shooting a career-best 41.2% (21 of 51) from 3-point range and is Longwood’s top free-throw shooter with a 89.1% clip (41-of-46), which is on pace to break the school record of .889 held by Lonnie Lewis and Jason Pryor. He leads all Lancer guards with a 45.5% field-goal rate (66-of-145) and 4.0 rebounds per game. His 31 steals rank 10th in the Big South, while his 15 blocks are the most of any guard in the Big South.
“I’m very, very proud of the conscious effort DJ has made to improve himself,” Gee said. “I know that’s something his teammates have challenged him on as well. We show him a lot of film, we have one-on-one talks with him, and other players communicate it to him. At the end of the day, we’re all just challenging him to be who he’s capable of being.”
Allen entered this season as one of Longwood’s top options off the bench, primarily a defensive-minded player. On a team loaded with scorers, Allen expected to return to that reserve role this season, but when the Lancers rolled out a shorthanded lineup on opening day, he found himself as one of the starting five.
In his first game of the year, an exhibition matchup against neighboring Hampden-Sydney, he erupted for 15 points and 11 rebounds for what would have been his first career double-double.
He has started every game since.
“Here’s a young man who wasn’t even expected to start at the beginning of the year that now is being counted upon very heavily,” Gee said. “To make that transition from who he was and where’s been is a compliment to what he’s all about.”
Gee always knew what the Pompano Beach, Fla., native could do, but even he was stunned when his former Cleveland State pupil, New Orleans Pelicans point guard and NBA champion Norris Cole, pegged Allen as Longwood’s best player during a summer visit.
“Norris came to campus for a few days and watched our guys play, played with them and talked with them,” Gee said of his former player, a first-round pick of the Chicago Bulls in 2011 and a five-year NBA veteran. “I asked Norris at dinner what he thought of our team, and he said, ‘Well if I had to choose a team, I’d take DJ No. 1.’
“My mouth dropped. That was eye-opening for me, and for DJ as well. Somebody who’s a pro, who’s seen a lot of great players and who has played with a lot of great players, acknowledged DJ as the guy on our team who had the most upside.”
Allen has proven Cole right this season, and such high praise from an NBA champion played a small role in Allen’s emergence. Allen said he was surprised to hear Cole speak so highly of him at the time, and it woke him up to what others saw in him.
“One part of it is just me realizing what I can do on the court,” Allen said. “Last year I was hesitant about a lot of things I did in the game instead of just playing. That actually led to more mistakes, and more mistakes made me lose my confidence. This year, instead of overthinking, I just play.”
For a Longwood team embarking on a Big South gauntlet culminating in March’s conference tournament, Allen will be a key piece. Now he’s playing like it.