Women’s basketball: Indians save their best for last

Published 9:24 pm Saturday, December 31, 2016

By Mike London

SALISBURY — The Lenoir-Rhyne women’s basketball team left Goodman Gym dazed and confused.

The Bears were outstanding for 37 minutes, but Catawba was perfect for the last three on both ends of the court. Down 10 points late, the Indians finished the South Atlantic Conference struggle on a 14-0 run and won, 71-67.

“They just kept knocking down contested shots and we  never could get into any kind of flow,” Catawba coach Angie Morton said. “But we didn’t fold. Then at the end, everything came together.”

Bri Johnson scored 20 points for the Indians and took several charges. Serena Brown’s 15-point day included making the two biggest shots.  Elizabeth Webb scored 11, and one of her three 3-pointers ignited Catawba’s improbable comeback.  Alexis Newbold’s stat line wasn’t pretty — 1-for-5 for four points in 26 minutes— but the stats don’t tell everything. She was arguably the player of the game.  The last three minutes were the best three of her life.

It was a  little chilly and a little dark — three lights that glowed throughout the recent high  school Christmas tournament were out — and only 116 fans were in the bleachers. Students were on vacation and the citizens of Salisbury were celebrating holidays and watching bowl games.

Lenoir-Rhyne (7-4, 3-3 SAC) shook off the Christmas rust, came to play and took it to the Indians for a 17-11 lead after the first quarter. Catawba (8-3, 5-1 SAC) needed a 3-pointer by Webb in the final seconds of the first half to trail 30-25 at the break.

It got worse before it got better. L-R forward Madi Suddreth caught fire in the third quarter and rained destruction on the Indians like a vengeful goddess who had descended from Mount Olympus. Suddreth scored 14 in the quarter and shot the Bears into a 52-43 lead.

“We never stopped hustling on defense, but we weren’t getting any stops,” Webb said.

When Suddreth got tired of scoring, she passed the baton to guard Kendall Toineeta. Toineeta lit it up, drilling three straight jumpers, two from behind the 3-point line. Webb tried to stay on her, but Toineeta, who didn’t miss a shot all day, used screens and kept slipping away.

Then it was little guard Justyce Swango’s turn. She knocked down two straight 3-pointers. The second one, she accidentally banked. Lenoir-Rhyne would shoot 9-for-16 on 3-pointers.

“We were like, ‘What in the world?,'” Newbold said. “They couldn’t miss.”

Terri Rogers, returning from a knee issue, couldn’t get anything to fall inside, but through it all, no matter how smoking-hot the Bears got, Johnson refused to let  the Indians get blown out. She kept finding ways to score — rainbows, floaters, hangers —  and Catawba still lurked on the fringes of contention.

Still, when Suddreth marched to the foul line  and made two  free ones with 3:33 left, the Bears led 67-57, and it was officially desperation time for the Indians.

“During a timeout, the coaches told us we couldn’t just trade baskets the rest of the way,” Brown said. “We had to defend on every possession.”

Brown had nine assists. One came on a pass to Webb for the 3-pointer that made it 67-60 with 3:12 left and offered a sliver of hope.

“I was open and it went in,” said Webb, who is playing with a taped-up knuckle injury, “But all I was thinking about was we had to get some stops.”

Catawba did get a stop, forcing a turnover.

Then Catawba executed on offense, getting the ball in to Rogers for a point-blank shot. She missed, but Newbold battled for the board, got fouled and made two free throws. The Indians were down five with 2:33 on the clock.

Next came a soaring steal by Newbold when the Bears tried to lob over her head. That turnover led to a Newbold assist. Blanketed by defenders near the hoop, she passed back to Rogers at the key. Rogers, who had struggled mightily, then made the toughest of the 14 shots she tried. She was spinning in traffic, but she nailed it, and Catawba trailed 67-64 with 1:55 to go.

“I wasn’t thinking about scoring at all at the end,” Newbold said. “Defend, box out, rebound and find my teammates.”

It was a one-possession game after Rogers’ shot, and the Bears, on the road and under pressure, were tightening up. No one really wanted to take the next shot.  Swango was called for a foul away from the ball with 1:34 left.

With 1:22 left, Brown rose and  nailed the jumper that reduced Catawba’s deficit to 67-66.

Again, L-R struggled to get a shot. With the shot-clock nearly exhausted, Swango had to fire from deep on the left wing, but Webb swatted the ball away before she got it out of her hands. Then Catawba’s offense went to work with a chance to take the lead for the second time. Catawba’s only lead  had been 9-8 after three minutes.

Newbold was almost trapped by two Bears on the baseline, but the diagonal pass she whipped out to Brown to the left of the circle achieved optimum results.

“Oh, I knew right where she’d be,” Newbold said. “And I knew she’d make the shot.”

Brown did make it. It was good all the way, like a football field goal splitting the uprights. Catawba led 69-67. Catawba coaches were shaking fists in the air  before the ball reached the rim.

“It looked for a second like Alexis was stuck, but I tried to creep over a  bit to give her a little window to pass through,” Brown said. “Thank goodness she was able to see me. I heard  a coach yell, ‘That’s good!’ as soon as I let it go.”

There were still 31 seconds left, but there was no chance of the visitors recovering from a dagger plunged straight into the heart. The Bears were still looking  for a shot with 10 seconds left when Johnson poked the ball away from Toinetta and then pounced on it.

Johnson, who had kept Catawba in the game almost by herself, got all kinds of help from all  teammates in those last three minutes. Fittingly, she sank the two  free throws with eight seconds left  that clinched victory.

Her free throws completed Catawba’s 14-0 closing kick. Lenoir-Rhyne didn’t score in the final 3 minutes, 33 seconds. In the fourth quarter, while the Bears were making eight turnovers, Catawba made zero.

Catawba shot very well on 3-pointers (7-f0r-13) but was nothing special (42.6 percent) from the field.

Lenoir-Rhyne shot a scary 75 percent in the third quarter and a sizzling 56.5 percent for the game but still lost because of a 19-8 turnover differential.

“We really picked up the defense at the end,” Morton said. “We always believe we’re never out of a game.”

LENOIR-RHYNE (67) — Suddreth 18, Robinson 12, Toinetta 12, Swango 11, Romero 5, Cooper 5, Bell 4, Joyner, Rodriguez.

CATAWBA (71) — Johnson 20, Brown 15, Webb 11, Rogers 9, Butler 7, Newbold 4, Angelo 3, Tucker 2, Franklin, Hallman.

Lenoir-Rhyne  17  13  22 15 — 67
Catawba            11 14  18  28— 71