College basketball: Catawba tops Wingate in Education Day tilt

Published 11:59 pm Wednesday, December 18, 2019

By Mike London

SALISBURY —  The perfect game is still out there somewhere.

Catawba men’s basketball coach Rob Perron and his team are still searching for it, still looking to put it all together. If the talented Indians ever do, they might score 125 and beat someone by 50.

On Wednesday, they settled for getting past Wingate, 88-79, for another South Atlantic Conference victory.

“We talk about it,” Catawba guard Devin Cooper said. “We all want to be more consistent, but we haven’t put 40 great minutes together yet. We’re still having a lot of ups and downs. Basketball will always be a game of runs, but our spurts of playing well together are getting longer and we’re having more of those spurts.”

Catawba (8-2, 4-1) appeared to be a lot better than the Bulldogs in an Education Day matinee that attracted hundreds of loud elementary school students to Goodman Gym, but the Indians had more than their share of peaks and valleys. Catawba led by 20 and was cruising with five minutes to go, but Wingate (4-5, 0-4) kept battling down to the horn. Wingate had a 3-point attempt with a minute left to play rim out. If that one falls, Catawba’s lead would have been down to six, and it might have gotten interesting.

“Wingate doesn’t quit,” Perron said. “And that’s a team that’s a lot better than their record. They’ve got size and depth. They’ve just lost a lot of close games.”

Catawba knows what it’s like to lose close games. Both of the Indians’ setbacks this season came in overtime. They are two buckets away from being 10-0.

Catawba averages 90 points per game. Five Indians average double figures. Three of those five —  Cooper (24), brilliant shooter Marcell Haskett (19) and sky-walker Larry McLeod (10) —  reached double digits against Wingate. They were joined by Zaqwuan Matthews, a rangy newcomer, who brings 3-point shooting and long-armed perimeter defense. Matthews made three 3-pointers and scored 14.

Veteran Malik Constantine dunked early for the Indians, sending the kids in the bleachers into a frenzy. When Cooper, a powerfully built point guard, bulled to the rim for two, whipped a pass to Daquan Lilly for a bucket, and drilled one from the corner, Catawba got rolling.

When Matthews popped back-to-back 3s — he got a soft roll on the second one from the top of the wheel — the Indians led 32-19 with 7:51 left in the half and looked like they might chase Wingate right out of the gym.

But then Catawba hit one of those dry spells.

“We came out, made a bunch of 3s, and maybe it made us giddy,” Perron said. “Then we started settling for 3s, and it was one-pass-and-shoot 3s, not the drive-and-kick 3s we’re looking for. It wasn’t a good stretch. We were all disappointed in our ball movement.”

Wingate caught up at 34-all, with former Hickory Ridge star Jarren Cottingham (20 points) repeatedly taking Indians to the rim. Cottingham enjoyed a personal 10-0 run.

Terrence Whitfield fed McLeod for the dunk that gave the Indians a 38-34 lead at the break and restored a bit of momentum.

Wingate got the first bucket of the second half, but then it was time for another Catawba spurt. Cooper buried consecutive 3s, with Constantine making the pass that led to both shots. Two Haskett free throws gave Catawba a 10-point lead at 46-36.

“We started the second half moving the ball a lot better,” Cooper said. “That’s what we’d talked about doing, and we got the quick start we needed.”

Haskett didn’t get any breaks in the first half. About five calls that could’ve gone either way went against him, but after some initial frustration, he came back to bury big shots.

“Every game there’s going to be some adversity, for the team and individually,” Haskett said. “You just have to be ready to make the next play.”

Catawba blew it open with a fantastic stretch of basketball. Catawba led 55-48 with 12:43 left when McLeod headed toward the hoop. Everyone expected him to try to flush another one with his astounding vertical, but instead he whipped a pass back out to Haskett, who was trailing on the left wing.

“I thought he was going to try to dunk it, but he found me,” Haskett said. “When I saw that pass coming, I knew I had to make it.”

He made it.

Not long after that, the muscular Lilly was blasting toward the hoop for a three-point play. Then Haskett sailed in for an and-one of his own, and the Indians led 64-50 with 11:06 remaining.

The lead crested at 76-56 with 5:55 remaining after Cooper nailed his third 3-pointer and Whitfield added a free throw.

From that high point, Catawba didn’t finish as strong as it wanted to, and Wingate scored a ton of points down the stretch, a lot of them off Catawba turnovers.

Perron groaned at the 22 turnovers on Catawba’s stat sheet, but the Indians were good on the boards (42-27 advantage) good at the foul line (22-for-27) and good enough at sharing the ball that they shot 51 percent for the game.

“Too many turnovers,” Perron said. “But I thought we played really well for most of the second half.”

The search for 40 minutes of excellence continues. The Indians only have one true point guard (Cooper), but as long as he stays healthy, this team has the horses to do special things.

“We haven’t played our best game yet, and we know it,” said Haskett, who had a ball high-fiving youngsters and tossing them T-shirts after the game . “We’ll keep working for it.”

Catawba hosts Southern Wesleyan (6-4) at 2 p.m. on Saturday.

WINGATE (79) — Cottingham 20, Dawkins 13, Taylor 9, Nixon 8, Roberts 7, Alston 6, Pringle 4, Priest 4, Tucker 3, Sio 3, Johnson 2.

CATAWBA (88) — Cooper 24, Haskett 19, Matthews 14, McLeod 10, Lilly 9, Constantine 5, Zemonek 4, Robinson 2, Whitfield 1, Bowen.

Wingate    34    45    — 79

Catawba    38   50    — 88