Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Morton my Man!

There’s something about Charleston. Coming off their fourth Southern Conference road loss at Wofford last Saturday, Davidson (15-9, 8-4) faced a must-win situation against the Citadel on Monday. The Citadel was looking for their first Southern Conference victory of the season and came out firing, making Davidson look vulnerable throughout the entire first half. But there’s something about Charleston. Davidson had picked up its only tough road win against the College of Charleston back in January, and they proved to everyone that they wouldn’t fade against the Citadel this time, building an 11-point lead with over a minute remaining and holding on for a 81-77 victory. Hopefully this confidence will extend to the Southern Conference tournament, which will be held in Charleston in a little over two weeks.
This crazy week started last Wednesday as fans filed into Belk Arena looking to bounce back from the home upset to Western Carolina. The Wildcats came out firing against UNC-Greensboro, hitting six first half threes en route to a 46-31 halftime lead. The Wildcats combined an aggressive, trapping defense and hot-shooting offense to bury the Spartans before they realized the game had started. Brendan Winters ’06 finished with 24 points, and Davidson looked to be back on the winning track as they cruised to a 92-73 victory.
Unfortunately, the Wildcats were forced to go back on the road on Saturday when they traveled to Wofford. Sporting a 2-7 road record at that point, the men in red knew that they would get a fight from the Terriers in a gym where Davidson had only won once in the last 5 years. The Wildcats seem to take the challenge in stride as they found an offensive rhythm inside with Ian Johnson ’06, who finished with a game-high 23 points on 11-20 FG shooting. Davidson had no trouble finding proficient scoring, but that wasn’t enough to overcome the two-headed monster of Wofford’s three-point shooting and a knee injury to reserve guard Jason Morton ’06. Morton’s injury came early in the first half, and his hot shooting and quick defense went to the bench with him. Unable to mount a successful charge against Wofford eight second-half three-pointers, the Wildcats again proved unable to win a game when not leading at halftime, falling 84-71.
On Monday night, it looked like Davidson finally found a formula for winning on the road. Playing against an inspired Citadel team whose guards continued to hit fantastic shots, Davidson established a philosophy of team toughness. When the Bulldogs hit a shot, the Wildcats would go on the attack and got points on the offensive end, instead of playing flustered like they had in the past. Davidson’s hard work defensively paid off near the end of the game as they went on a 14-2 run to build an 11-point lead with just over a minute to play. “They hit some big shots, but we responded every time instead of getting knocked to the mat,” said Coach McKillop. “We got down, but we did not relent. And we have made that a point of emphasis when playing on the road.”
The Wildcats also made it a team effort on Monday as the Wildcat bench made up for a 3-15 FG performance by captains Winters, Kenny Grant ’06, and Matt McKillop ’06. Jason Morton ’06 showed excellent resiliency by coming off a knee injury and one day’s rest to contribute 27 points and set a team record for 100% three-point shooting, going 6-6 from beyond the arc. The Wildcats also got key minutes from Andrew Lovedale ’09 and Eric Blancett ’06 who combined for nine rebounds, four of them offensive, in an average of just 10.5 minutes between them. “Jason Morton played spectacularly and I think that Lovedale had his best game in a Davidson uniform,” said McKillop. “When you get your bench making those contributions, you are going to be successful.”
Johnson continued to be strong inside as he racked up 19 points and 10 rebounds for his fourth double-double of the season. The Wildcats performed well on the boards as a team as they out-rebounded the Citadel 44-27 and picked 16 offensive rebounds, giving them second chances and providing psychological daggers to the defense.
The story of this game, however, is the emergence of a team leader that has been sorely lacking all season. Jason Morton has demonstrated that despite not being a starter, he will emotionally and physically lead this Wildcat squad with hot shooting, unrelenting defense, and contagious hustling. Perhaps one of the keys of Davidson’s struggles this season has been the inability to take pressure off of the shots of Winters and McKillop and allow them to play wide open basketball. Morton has stepped into that role now and defenses can no longer focus on a single outside or inside threat, but rather must contend with a slasher whose ability to shoot and spread the ball around makes the Wildcat offense all the more dangerous. He has also provided the defensive spark to pressure opponents on the ball and create transition opportunities.
On Monday, the Wildcats showed that despite the toughness of their opponents, they can overcome a deficit and pick up a win in a hostile environment. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the Wildcats have only been able to do that on the road in Charleston, SC. The Southern Conference tournament looms large on the horizon and the Wildcats want to establish momentum and good play in the historic Southern city.
Despite their four conference losses, Davidson remains in the thick of the Southern Conference race for first place as they are one game behind Georgia Southern and Elon who sit at 9-3. Facing fourth-place Furman on Saturday at Belk Arena, Davidson will look to exact revenge from their January road loss to the Paladins.

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