Two years ago, Conrad Stephens was on Robert Morris’ women’s team practice squad.
Last season as a walk-on for the men’s team, he played only five minutes throughout four games.
Yet in one game this season, that all seemed like a distant memory.
The junior forward sparked a dwindling Robert Morris to a big Northeast Conference win Saturday at the Sewall Center, taking down Fairleigh Dickinson 64-58. The Colonials improved to 2-4 in the conference (4-15 overall) while the Knights fell out of first place at 4-2 (8-9 overall).
Stephens had played in just two previous games this season — three minutes against Mississippi Valley State in November and six minutes in Thursday’s loss to Mount St. Mary’s, where he scored his first basket.
Two days later, he scored 13 points and tied a team-high six rebounds, going 6-for-6 from the field in 21 minutes.
“He was awesome,” coach Andy Toole said. “He was in the right spot. Kept it simple. Finished when he got around the basket. ... Maybe he’s someone that we can rely on to give us some minutes and some energy and some pop because we certainly could use it more frequently.”
Beyond just the impact on the scoreboard, Stephens’ performance seemed to renew something in his teammates that had been missing all season: fun.
When the walk-on scored six-straight points around the 14-minute mark of the second half to bring the team within two of Fairleigh Dickinson, the Colonials’ bench went wild. Injured players Rodney Pryor, Andre Frederick and Aaron Tate alternated between dancing, skipping up and down the bench and falling over each other every time Stephens made a basket.
“Guys are jumping around, high-fiving each other, and that’s important,” junior point guard Kavon Stewart said. “Guys want to hear that. They don’t want to hear always negative. And I think that’s what excited the team today and got us the win.”
Sophomore forward Elijah Minnie scored a game-high 17 points while Stewart had 12. The Knights also had three double-digit scorers in Stephan Jiggetts (15), Mike Holloway (13) and Earl Potts Jr. (10).
But after the game, the whole Robert Morris team mobbed Stephens, acknowledging him as the MVP.
“In our eyes, we always knew Conrad had this in him,” Minnie said, adding Stephens is oftentimes the best player in practice. “He goes hard 24/7, and his motor doesn’t stop. At practice, he makes us better. He just sacrifices a lot, being a walk on and not playing much. But when he gets asked to play, he comes in and he plays his role. And he does it well.”
Overall, Robert Morris was much improved from even a game ago, shooting 81 percent from the free-throw line and out-rebounding Fairleigh Dickinson 34-31 — both areas the team had struggled with recently.
Toole said Stephens just pumped the team up with his career performance, and the Colonials had been looking for that source of energy all season. Maybe now, the Colonials have found it.
“For them to see him go out and do that … they were really excited for him,” Toole said. “We haven’t had many reasons to celebrate this year, but it was the most excited locker room we’ve had all year. And most of it was directed toward Conrad.”