College basketball: Downs returning for another run

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 22, 2023

By Mike London

SALISBURY —  Things are looking up for Catawba athletics.

The women’s soccer team is nationally ranked in the preseason polls and football interest is higher than it’s been since the pandemic hit.

Some of that high energy from the fan base was stirred up by extraordinary men’s and women’s basketball seasons last winter, especially a 29-win women’s hoops season that carried all the way to a national semifinal contest in Missouri.

That run was so much fun for the participants that the senior leaders from that team are planning to run it back. They are returning to try it again.

They will be taking advantage of that universal redshirt for their COVID season, so you can expect to see South Atlantic Conference and Southeast Region Player of the Year Lyrik Thorne and All-SAC players Janiya Downs and Sara McIntosh on the hardwood for their fifth campaign.

There may even be some NIL opportunities for the returning stars. It’s a new world in that regard and Catawba is working with athletes to capitalize on their fame.

With those high-profile returners, Catawba will be expected to be a factor nationally again. Experience will help. The Indians got a good idea last season of what it’s going to take to win a national championship. They got a look at serious size and they got a look at different styles of play from around the country.

“The Final Four was amazing,” said Downs, a local girl who starred at South Rowan High. “We were 13 hours away from home in Missouri, but you look in the crowd and you see your family and you see so many Catawba fans that flew out there to support us. Our professors were there. The president of the college was there. We had all the support we needed to win it all, but we just couldn’t quite pull it off.”

Downs made it look easy in high school at South Rowan, where she also starred in track and field and volleyball. She was honored multiple times as Rowan County Player of the Year for basketball and as Rowan County Female Athlete of the Year.

At 5-foot-11, with ball-handling skills and athletic ability, she overwhelmed most of her high school opponents, shooting flurries of layups and free throws. She averaged 32.3 points per game as a senior and put up a 52-point game and a 53-point game in the span of a week. She finished her high school basketball career with nearly 2,400 points and as the No. 2 scorer in Rowan County girls basketball history.

Immediate stardom seemed certain at Catawba, but it didn’t happen. She was injured during the summer prior to her freshman year and was hobbled for most of a challenging season spent in a reserve role, rarely showing the explosiveness she displayed in high school. Her scoring average (3.5) was about the same as her GPA.

Her sophomore year was better, but she was still limited by injuries, primarily a sprained ankle. She still came off the bench, although she had some nice games and contributed 9.0 points per game.

As a junior, she was a starter for the Indians for the first time and averaged 10.1 points per game, but it wasn’t until her senior year that she really got it rolling.

“It was just a matter of getting completely healthy and in really good shape,” Downs said. “No one can do it at this level unless they’re healthy. But now I’m feeling like myself again, and Coach (Terence) McCutcheon is a very encouraging coach who has given me a lot of confidence to go out and play my game.”

Last season, Downs averaged 13.0 points and 5.9 rebounds and scored in the 20s six times, including the regional final against Georgia Southwestern and the season-ending loss to Minnesota-Duluth. She was second team All-SAC, All-SAC Tournament and All-Southeast Regional Tournament.

Downs led the Indians in 3-point shooting percentage with 37 percent.

That growth was a testament to the work she’s put in, as she didn’t come to Catawba as an outside shooter. She’d scored the vast majority of her high schools points on drives, off steals or by crashing the offensive boards.

“The turning point for me was when we lost to Lander in the regional my junior year,” Downs said. “The girl guarding me was standing back in the paint, laying way off me, and I told myself, ‘Man, this is never happening again.'”

Downs shot 3-for-13 from the floor and 0-for-4 from 3 in that loss to Lander down in Georgia, and Catawba fell 80-68 despite strong efforts by Thorne and McIntosh.

But Downs fixed her jumper with long hours in the gym and it showed during that banner 2022-23 season. Now opponents have to respect her as a solid shooter. That opens up driving opportunities.

Through all the ups and downs on the hardwood, Downs has always excelled in the classroom. The master plan from the start has been dental school.

Chemistry classes have discouraged a number of potential dentists over the years, but Downs survived them. She earned her degree last spring in biology, graduating with a 3.4 GPA.

“I think biology is one of the toughest majors at Catawba,” Downs said. “The toughest classes for me were organic chemistry (1 and 2) and biochemistry. “The professors always worked with me, understanding that I was traveling sometimes with the basketball team, but I got all the work done, and I built some relationships that will last a lifetime.”

Downs worked this summer as a dental assistant at the Community Care Clinic of Rowan County and enjoyed every minute of it.

She originally had planned to start dental school this fall, but she’s delayed it for a year, so she can play one more year of basketball with Thorne, McIntosh and her other friends and teammates.

Instead, she will work on a masters degree this year online. While her classes started on Aug. 16, she won’t actually be on campus all that often except for the time she spends in the gym.

Her 1,000th point for the Indians will come early next season.

That will be a huge night for her, but it won’t be the peak of her life.

The biggest things for Downs are going to come long after the ball stops bouncing.