College basketball: Catawba men hold off Lions

Published 10:29 pm Saturday, December 15, 2018

By Mike London

SALISBURY — Catawba men’s basketball coach Rob Perron described it as “a night of little adversities,” but the Indians won another game on Saturday afternoon at Goodman Gym.

Nagging injuries hampered Daquan Lilly and Malik Constantine, while Jeremy McLaughlin was sidelined completely.

But this may be the best team the Indians have had in a decade. There are a lot of viable options. Five players scored 16-18 points. Catawba handled Mars Hill, 96-86.

Lilly wasn’t as bouncy as usual, but scrapped for 16. Jameel Taylor missed some easy ones but got to the foul line often enough to score 17. Devin Cooper, a hard-nosed guard who transferred from Radford, scored 17, despite foul trouble. Marcell Haskett, an entertaining scoring machine, tossed in 16. Ben Zemonek, the perfect complementary guy, couldn’t have played any better and scored 18 while putting up only nine shots.

There were numerous whistles, but that was good news for Catawba (8-1, 3-0). This is the best free-throw shooting team the Indians have had in years. No fan holds his or her breath anymore when an Indian walks to the foul line. Catawba went 35-for-40 on those uncontested 15-footers from the stripe. That’s 87.5 percent, close to automatic.

Was it easy against Mars Hill on Saturday? No, not by a long shot. Catawba never trailed, but the resilient Lions (5-4, 0-2) stayed within striking distance. Catawba won by decision, not by knockout.

“Mars Hill is a really good team,” Cooper said. “They’re better than people realize, better than they get credit for. To beat them, we had to make big shots and get big rebounds. And then we still had to knock down free throws at the end.”

A rugged Jordan McElween drive gave Catawba a double-digit lead midway through the first half, but Mars Hill, which got 30 points from opportunistic Ja’Shawn Brooks, hung around and got back within two.

Catawba stretched the lead back to 15 at halftime when Zemonek split multiple defenders on an 80-foot drive and finished a three-point play for a 51-36 advantage.

Mars Hill had only two second-chance points at the break, but the Lions battled harder on the boards in the second half.

Catawba led 62-48 with 14:45  left when Cooper, who was controlling the pace, sat down with his fourth foul.

“I wasn’t frustrated at anyone but myself because it was bad foul.” Cooper said.

Mars Hill got back as close as eight points, but when Taylor roared in for a three-point play with 6:19 left, Catawba was back in control at 81-66.

A thunderous dunk by Terrence Whitfield — his only two  points— off a pass from Zemonek put the Indians up 83-66 with 5:25 left. It looked over — but it wasn’t.

“We were calm in the huddle, but maybe we got a little too casual,” Perron said. “This Mars Hill team has a lot of fight.”

Catawba missed several 2-footers, Mars Hill reserve Austin Gilyard buried back-to-back 3s, and suddenly it was 87-80 with 2:24 remaining.

“We had a possession where we missed two layups and a tip dunk, and then they make a transition 3-pointer,” Perron said. “We should be up 12. Instead, it’s seven.”

Mars Hill had done a nice job of executing the scouting report on Haskett. He’d been unable to get untracked in the first half and the Lions had continued to chase him off the 3-point line in the second half.

“I’d gotten myself going some through my defensive energy,” Haskett said. “I hasn’t made any 3-pointers in the second half, but I’d been sitting down and guarding people and I’d been able to score on some drives.”

With the Indians’ lead shrinking from 17 to seven and with a disastrous collapse a possibility, Haskett wanted the ball coming out of a timeout.

“I could see that look in his eyes,” Cooper said. “Here it comes.”

Haskett is creative, with a full bag of tricks — step-backs, fades, pull-ups, double-pumps and scoops. He used a screen and got a step.

“I got going downhill to the hoop,” Haskett said. “I felt contact, took the bump and was still able to make the layup.”

Haskett’s clutch three-point play made it 90-80 with 2:02 left and went a long way to sealing victory.

When Cooper controlled the ball, grabbed a defensive board and knocked down four straight free throws, it was over.

“Total team effort,” Cooper said. “It took all of us to get the job done.”

Catawba shot only 43.9 percent from the field, made only three 3-pointers and fouled 22 times, but it was a win.

“We didn’t play our best,” Perron said. “Defensively, we gave up a lot of ‘blow-bys’, and then the guy coming to help would get a whistle. That’s how you get in foul trouble.”

Catawba will try to foul less on Wednesday when it plays a very big SAC game at Wingate.

MARS HILL (86) — Brooks 30, Gilyard 13, Barnette 11, Cook 10, Griffin 8, Wright 8, Powell 4, Stone 2, Daniel, Hartfield, Elkins, Trimble.

CATAWBA (96) — Zemonek 18, Cooper 17, Taylor 17, Lilly 16, Haskett 16, McElveen 6, Constantine 4, Whitfield 2, Phillips, Curry, Barber.

Mars Hill    36    50   — 86

Catawba     51     45   — 96