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Women’s Basketball: Catawba holds on

By Mike London

mike.london@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — A 27-point lead nearly melted away, but the Catawba women’s basketball team held on to beat Mars Hill, 79-66, at Goodman Gym on Saturday afternoon.
The Indians got 27 points from Bri Johnson and left the gym 10-10 overall and 7-7 in the South Atlantic Conference. They’ve made a steady climb in the last four weeks. On Jan. 2, after losing in overtime at Lenoir-Rhyne, Catawba stood 1-5 in the league.
“I never thought I’d say I was happy to get to .500,” Catawba coach Angie Morton said. “But we’ve come a long way from where we were. Our assists are really going up (18 on Saturday). We’re playing our roles better now.”
Catawba didn’t have Jada Huntley available for its early games, including an 82-67 setback at Mars Hill on Dec. 12. Huntley was instrumental in Saturday’s victory with 19 points and she contributed a lot of long, quick defense as the Indians roared to a 52-31 halftime lead.
“Mars Hill’s (Kelsey) Espinosa and (Cadence) Wilmoth have just been killing people,” Morton said. “Jada and Terri Rogers did a great job on those two. We really carried out our defensive game plan for most of the game.”
Espinosa and Wilmoth usually combine for 25 points per game. They teamed for only 12 on Saturday.
Catawba, especially Johnson, shot sensationally in the first half. Johnson had 18 points by halftime, and the Indians shot a sizzling 65.5 percent before the break.
“We were getting the ball inside a lot,” Johnson said. “We were also getting some good kick-outs for open shots.”
Morton said Johnson “kills quietly.” Her big day included 7-for-7 foul shooting, and the 5-foot-8 junior pulled down a game-high nine rebounds.
When Huntley made a layup off a feed from Johnson with 6:17 left in the third quarter, Catawba had a 63-36 lead. That’s where the Indians peaked.
After that came an offensive drought. Then it got a little scary. The Lions (8-9, 7-5) weren’t quitting and they made a furious run that started late in the third quarter and extended well into the fourth quarter.
“Mars Hill picked up their intensity and we quit sticking to our defensive principles,” Johnson said. “It was really more what we stopped doing than anything they started doing.”
Catawba’s lead dipped to 23, then to 18, and then to 13. With 6:14 remaining, Genice Lane made a layup for the Lions that cut Catawba’s lead to single digits at 67-58.
“We’re just not very good with a lead sometimes,” Morton said. “We’re better at attacking then we are standing around looking at each other. We want to be smart, but we have to stay aggressive.”
Johnson briefly stopped the Lions’ run with a driving, three-point play with 4:50 remaining for a 70-59 lead, but then Mars Hill scored five more in a row. Down 70-64, Mars Hill got a timeout with 2:39 remaining to plan its final push.
That’s where the Indians dug in. After that timeout, they got a layup from Huntley after taking 20 seconds off the clock. Serena Brown made the nice pass to Huntley.
Then Huntley produced a steal-layup combination with 2:07 left that was the biggest play of the game. That pushed the lead back to 10, and the Indians caught their second wind.
“Jada is so quick, she can be in the passing lane before you realize it,” Morton said. “And she’s strong enough to finish.”
Down the stretch, Catawba got stops and made free throws (16-for-18), and the long climb back to .500 was accomplished.
“We didn’t have Jada when we played them at Mars Hill,” Johnson said. “She helps.”
•••
NOTES: Paige Chavis, who starred at Central Davidson, led the Lions with 17 points. … Rogers scored 16 for the Indians. … Brown, Janna Dixon and Zhaquondalee Greer contributed 3-pointers for the Indians. … Catawba cooled off in the second half but still shot 50 percent for the game. … Catawba recruits Madi Hallman (East Davidson) and Toni Tucker (NW Guilford) were on hand to watch their future teammates. … Catawba takes on Lenoir-Rhyne at home on Wednesday.

MARS HILL (66) — Chavis 17, Lane 15, Ricker 15, Wilmoth 8, Comer 5, Espinosa 4, Kamga 2, Brooks, Smith.
CATAWBA (79) — Johnson 27, Huntley 19, Rogers 16, S. Brown 6, Newbold 5, Greer 3, Dixon 3, Ucinski, Hodges, Webb, K. Brown.

Mars Hill     15   16   18   17  — 66
Catawba       26    26   15   12  — 79

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