College basketball: It’s late, but Catawba men have won 3 straight
By Mike London
SALISBURY — It was Senior Night for Catawba’s men’s basketball, and the Indians won for the 100th time against South Atlantic Conference rival Lenoir-Rhyne.
The 91-80 final told a good chunk of the story. It was as breezy as it sounds. Catawba scored quickly and efficiently, sharing the ball, shooting 50 percent from the field and putting five men in double figures. The Indians led for all but about a minute, and that was early.
The Indians made free throws (17-for-22).
The 3-point line, Catawba’s worst enemy during leaner times, has become their buddy. The Bears (8-5) clanged away at a 5-for-23 success rate from long range. The Indians were a respectable 10-for-26 on 3s for 38.5 percent.
“The 3-point line was a detriment for us early this season,” head coach Rob Perron said. “But we’re defending the 3 better and shooting it better. We don’t have to shoot a great percentage on 3s to win, just a decent percentage.”
Shots are falling. So are opponents. There’s been a total mood swing from where things stood a few weeks ago.
“Two weeks ago, everybody was down,” point guard Marcus Burwell said. “But now we’re up. A lot of guys are playing well. It’s fun.”
Burwell, a “rookie” senior had 23 points and nine rebounds, some of them high-rising defensive boards at crunch time.
“Coach told me I needed to crash, so I did,” Burwell said.
It distressed Burwell that the stat sheet showed he was responsible for five of Catawba’s 17 turnovers, but he had four assists and keyed the convincing victory as much as anyone.
Darius Simmons, an extra-quick guard, scored 25 for the Bears. Forward RJ Gunn had 21.
Catawba is now 7-10, which doesn’t sound like much, but after getting spanked at Newberry on Feb. 15, the Indians were 4-10. So they’ve won three straight, putting up 86, 94 and 91 points in the process.
“We know we can still lose to anybody in our league,” Perron said. “But we’ve also started to realize that we’ve got the pieces to beat anyone in our league. We’re in an unprecedented season where we’ve had to make unprecedented decisions, and it’s been so hard to get into any sort of rhythm,. But our guys have stuck with it. They’ve kept playing. Now we’re playing our way into getting it together.”
Two of the 13 teams are already out of the upcoming SAC tournament due to COVID situations, league-leading Lincoln Memorial and UVa-Wise. That leaves 11. Catawba has moved up enough in the standings that it will get to host a first-round home game on Saturday. The first-rounders will be 6 vs. 11, 7 vs. 10 and 8 vs. 9.
Catawba led by as many as 13 in the first half and took a 43-33 lead to the break because of the work of 6-foot-8 reserve Tralynn Spencer.
It came out of nowhere as Spencer averages 2.1 points per game and plays 5 minutes per game. But he went berserk, shooting 6-for-7 in the first half and making four 3-pointers.
Spencer played only five quiet minutes in the second half, but he put Catawba in charge when the Indians needed someone to get hot. And when he heated up like summer asphalt, his teammates looked for him and found him.
Burwell, senior Larry McLeod (16 points, 5 assists, 1 windmill dunk) and freshmen Bernard Pelote (15 points, 11 rebounds) and Caleb Robinson (10 points in 11 minutes) carried the load in the second half.
Dependable DJ Johnson drew a Senior Night start and contributed four points and four rebounds.
Burwell made dazzling shots in the last three minutes when Lenoir-Rhyne still had a chance.
Catawba’s lead was 73-67 at the 2:58 mark when Burwell calmly drained a step-back 3-pointer. With 2:05 left, McLeod somehow made a jumper as he was crashing to the floor for a 76-69 lead.
With 1:18 left, Burwell and McLeod were on a 2-on-1 break when Burwell unexpectedly pulled up from well beyond the 3-point line and delivered the backbreaking swish.
“My shot was there on,” Burwell said with a smile. “Coach didn’t like that one on the break much — until it went in.”
Pelote, a 6-foot-8 freshman wing player who is starting to come on, has elevated his game in recent weeks and has moved into a starting role.
“My confidence was low for a lot of the season,” Pelote said. “But now I’m more comfortable. Now my confidence is high.”
“He paid his dues,” Perron added. “He’s put in a lot of extra time in the gym and he’s learning to play in pressure situations. It’s hard to simulate game pressure in practice. You have to play in some of those tough games before you start to figure it out.”
Pelote had a momumental game at Anderson on Saturday — 25 points and 12 rebounds — and appears to be a star of the future.
“It’s like we’re moving up a spot in the standings every day,” Perron said. “I wish there were more games.”
There’s just one game left for Catawba in the regular season. That’s at Wingate on Wednesday. Catawba is only 2-6 on the road and got hammered at home by Wingate, but there’s at least a chance the Indians could get their fourth straight win.
“It’s going to take four straight wins to win our conference tournament,” Perron said. “So going for four straight at Wingate is good practice.”
LENOIR-RHYNE (80) — Simmons 25, Gunn 21, Muldrew 12, Fowler 7, Bradford 6, Fields 5, McClain 4, Rice, Steele.
CATAWBA (91) — Burwell 23, McLeod 16, Spencer 16, Pelote 15, Robinson 10, Johnson 4, Nelson 3, Phillips 2, Whitfield 2, Bowen.
Lenoir-Rhyne 33 47 — 80
Catawba 43 48 — 91
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