Catawba advances to SAC final
By Horace Billings
HICKORY ó Fourth-seeded Catawba advanced to the SAC tournament championship game by ousting No. 1 seed Lenoir-Rhyne 84-83 at Catawba County Community College on Saturday afternoon.
“It was a great college basketball game,” Catawba coach Jim Baker said. “These two schools have a great rivalry. It was an unbelievable chess match.”
Catawba (18-11) plays sixth-seeded Mars Hill (14-15) today at 2 p.m. at CVCC for the tournament title. The Lions, who had already knocked off third-seeded Carson-Newman, stunned No. 2 seed Wingate 91-90 in the other semifinal behind the play of Stoney Polite.
The winner of today’s game earns an automatic bid to the Division II playoffs.
Baker said his young team searched for a rhythm all season before winning seven of its last eight games.
“The last two weeks, you could tell the whole temperament had changed,” Baker said. “It may have taken us 80 days of practice and 20 games, but we finally got it. We really have played well the last four or five games.”
All-SAC forward Antonio Houston fired in a game-high 28 points to spark the Indians, who beat Tusculum in the first round. The sharpshooting soph was 10-for-18 from the field, including two 3-pointers. He 6-for-7 at the foul line.
Houston got help from SAC Freshman of the Year Dominick Reid, who made four 3-pointers, scored 22 points and dished out five assists. Donald Rutherford added 14 points.
Catawba shot 47.7 percent. Lenoir-Rhyne shot 56 percent but it made 16 turnovers that led to some easy baskets. Josh Kindred scored 23 points and had nine rebounds, while Josh Rudder scored 18 points for the Bears (22-6).
Lenoir-Rhyne bolted ahead 23-15, but the scoring of Houston and Reid lifted the Indians back into the game. It was tied 37-37 at halftime.
Houston and Reid stayed hot in the second half, and Catawba built its largest lead at 62-53 with just over 10 minutes left.
The Bears rallied and pulled ahead 74-69 with 4:38 left to play.
Lenoir-Rhyne (22-6) held a 74-69 lead with 4:39 left to play after a loud dunk by Elliott McDowell, who was also fouled and made the subsequent free throw.
But over the next four minutes, the Bears missed point-blank shots and turned the ball over often. That stretch allowed Catawba to storm back and take an 80-75 lead with 42 seconds left on a layup by Rob Fields.
The Bears cut the margin to 80-78 on a 3-pointer by Marcus Hodge with 35 seconds remaining.
Jason Diggs hit two clutch free throws for an 82-78 lead with 23 seconds left. L-R again scrapped within two points, but Houston gave the Indians a two-possession lead with two more big free throws.
Rudder hit a last-second 3-pointer for the Bears to close the scoring.
“It was unforced turnovers that hurt us,” Lenoir-Rhyne coach John Lentz said. “We just didn’t take care of the ball, and that was the deciding factor.”
NOTES: The Bears, who had a 14-game winning streak during the regular season, have dropped three of their last four games. L-R will still likely receive an at-large bid to the playoffs. “Our collective body of work through the year should get us in,” Lentz said. “But who knows?” … Catawba lost to Wingate in the championship game last season.
CATAWBA (84) ó Houston 28, Reid 22, Rutherford 14, Fields 9, Monroe 4, Rose 3, Williams 2, Diggs 2, Burns.
LENOIR-RHYNE (83) ó Kindred 23, Rudder 18, Bratton 11, McDowell 11, Crawford 8, Hodges 8, Watson 2, Blackmon 2, Cook.Catawba 37 47 ó 84
Lenoir-Rhyne 37 46 ó 83