David Shaw: ‘It’s all very surreal’ for Catawba women as they head to Elite Eight for Division II

Published 12:01 am Thursday, March 16, 2023

By David Shaw

SALISBURY — All rise for the Catawba women’s basketball team.

If ever there was an assemblage of players that make you want to burst into song, it’s this one. The  Indians, 13-1 since late January, watched their ship come in 33 games ago and have been traveling first class ever since. Their voyage has taken them through the challenging waters of the South Atlantic Conference, past UNC-Pembroke and Clayton State in the Southeast Region tournament and now to parts unknown.

“It’s a group of young ladies who believe what we’ve been talking about since Day 1,” crowed sagacious leader Terence McCutcheon, Catawba’s third-year head coach. “When we first got here we talked about having a chance to play for a national championship. They’ve taken that on and kept working.”

This is true. For the first time in school history, Catawba is a Division II regional champ — and 75-65 is the flag it planted at its summit Monday night. Its reward for overcoming pesky Georgia Southwestern — and a 10-point, fourth-quarter deficit — is a No. 6 seed and a trip to St. Joseph, Mo. for next week’s national Elite Eight, where it will meet Cal State-Dominguez Hills on Monday at 1 p.m.

“It’s all very surreal,” explained senior forward Janiya Downs, the steady-as-she-goes South Rowan graduate and a major-league contributor for the 28-5 Indians. “Right now we’re living in the moment, but it’s not over yet. We’re still playing.”

And playing quite well. Catawba opened its season with seven consecutive victories, then reeled off 10 straight mid-winter triumphs before succumbing to Lenoir-Rhyne in the SAC tourney final earlier this month. In the region championship game at clamorous Goodman Gymnasium, the hosts shot 47 percent from the field, laced five 3-pointers in the fourth quarter and used a 24-4 finishing kick to end GSW’s season.

“I think they have a great chance to win it all,” said fourth-year GSW coach Justin Payne. “Especially if their big three continue to play like this.”

The big three, he called them. That would be Downs, SAC Player of the Year Lyrik Thorne and six-footer Sara McIntosh, a durable post player who grapples voraciously for every loose ball. Braided together they form a solid nucleus of senior talent — one that atypically stumbled through the third quarter when Catawba coughed up every bit of a 47-38 lead. The Hurricanes, winners of five straight and nine of their previous 11, used a 21-2 scoring spree to go up double digits. By the time GSW’s Destiny Garrett hit a layup just seconds into the final period, it was 61-51 and Catawba’s light was fading like Tinkerbell when the kids don’t clap.

“We didn’t come this far to be down 10 and panic,” McCutcheon told a handful of post-game inquirers. “My message to them was, ‘We’ve still got the whole fourth quarter to play. Don’t let your emotions carry you to a place where we can’t get back. Keep fighting.’ Right then and there we shut them down, changed momentum and took advantage of an opportunity.”

The opportunity he’s referencing began with 9:49 remaining. That’s when Garrett was whistled for a technical foul after muscling down the lane and past Thorne for an easy two-pointer.

“Destiny scored the ball and just looked at (Thorne) and they called a tech,” Payne offered, his voice bathed in perplexity. “I was hoping they’d allow these young women to play, like they do the men. All she did was stare her down and they called her for taunting. We’re not going to complain about it, but that seemed to spark Catawba. That was a pivotal moment, a momentum swing.”

It was all the Indians needed. Thorne’s pair of free throws trimmed the deficit to eight and ignited a 13-0 spurt, one that saw her drain two 3-balls from the right side and another from the left. Her rainbow three from deep right field with 7:43 to play — a shot so pretty you’d want to invite it to the winter formal — underscored a 33-point performance and put the locals up 64-61. Armed once again with the lead, Catawba squeezed hard and held on.

“From her high school days (at nearby Ledford), in big games Lyrik seems to lock in and be razor-sharp,” McCutcheon made it known. “She’s not afraid of the moment.”

Neither was Downs, who erased a pedestrian first-half display with a rock-star finish. She delivered a crucial, off-balance floater with nine minutes to go. She tied the score with a 3-pointer from 20 feet out. And her final basket was a long ball from the top of the key that gave Catawba a six-point advantage and helped frame a sturdy, 20-point/12-rebound effort. McIntosh, who joined Downs and Thorne on the all-tournament team, was good for seven rebounds and a plus-18 rating.

“We needed to lock in and do everything we didn’t do in previous years,” Thorne said afterward, her words tumbling over one another like a litter of puppies. “We made history and did things that were eye-catching. But we wanted something bigger, something that was gonna be in the books for years. That’s absolutely what we’ve done this year. We’ve made school history — and it’s going to give us a lifetime of stories to tell.”

Stories that make you want to burst into song.

See photo gallery from Catawba’s victory here https://www.salisburypost.com/2023/03/15/photo-gallery-catawba-women-on-the-way-to-elite-eight/