Men’s basketball races past Catawba

McLeod Brown | Sports Editor

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It wasn’t pretty. But it was a start.

In the debut of new head coach Kevin Keatts on the sideline, UNC Wilmington’s men’s basketball team made sure their coach started out his Seahawks career on a positive note, as they defeated Catawba College 97-68 in exhibition play on Saturday night.

True freshman guard Malik Pugh led six players in double figures for UNCW with a game-high 20 points. Senior Cedrick Williams finished with 16 points, while CJ Gettys and Freddie Jackson finished with 14 a piece. True freshman Jordon Talley and redshirt junior Craig Ponder each had 10 points, as well.

The Seahawks shot 50% (34-for-68) from the floor, including 56.7% in the second half, on their way to their 27th consecutive exhibition victory.

Sporting new uniforms with highlighter yellow outlining green lettering on the white jerseys, Saturday’s contest gave the public their first glimpse of the Seahawks. The team does not play in Trask Coliseum again until Dec. 3 when they host St. Andrews, as they play their first four regular season games on the road.

“I thought it was great,” Keatts said. “And I say that because we had some adversity where we weren’t playing well. One of the things that I’ve learned about this team, just looking at the tape from last year, is doing some adversity they always found a way to lose. It was a two-point game at halftime, and we certainly came out, and just played well, and continued to be aggressive. I thought our conditioning kicked in. I thought we were the better in-shape team than they were.”

The win did not come easily for the team, as the learning curve for Keatts’ new season was evident in the early going.

UNCW turned the ball over seven times in the first half, while also committing 11 fouls. Fortunately for the home team, the Indians were unable to take advantage of the miscues, shooting only 34% in the first half in earning just six points off those miscues, while committing seven turnovers of their own in the process.

The tide began to turn in the Seahawks favor just over the halfway mark of the first frame.

With the Indians holding a 25-22 lead with 8:12 to go in the first half, redshirt junior guard Craig Ponder was fouled on his layup attempt. Ponder converted both free throws, bringing his team within one.

Then, following a turnover by Catawba’s Rakeen Brown, Ponder was once again fouled as he rose up for a shot. The guard only made one of two attempts during the trip to the line, but more than made up for it on the next two sequences, as he drained a three-pointer off an Indian miss, before nabbing a steal and layup to give his team a 30-25 cushion.

Cedrick Williams layup on the ensuing Seahawk possession gave the team their largest lead of the first half.

The Indians were able to mount a comeback, however, behind five points in the last 4:33 from Ben Sealey to make it a 45-43 Seahawk lead at the break.

“We just came together as a team,” Williams said. “Just settling down and playing our basketball, just relax. We wanted to give our home crowd a show, a nice performance of what’s expected to come later on this season. I feel like we just let our emotions, just our excitement and the atmosphere, get the better of us. But once we came together and settled down, we started to play our game.”

The Seahawks came out more controlled in the second half, displaying that potential that has followed them throughout the preseason.

After falling behind 48-47 on Kijuan Arrington’s layup with 16:57 left in the game, senior Addison Spruill put the Seahawks back up for good with his layup on the other end.

UNCW scored 31 of the last 35 points in the game, with walk-on Kevin Hickson tacking on the final points of the contest, marking the team’s largest lead of the night as well.

The Seahawks bullied the Indians in the post in the second half, outscoring the visitors 32-10 in the paint.

Pugh scored 16 of his 20 points in the final frame on 6-for-8 shooting, nabbing two steals in the process.

While the exhibition proved the Seahawks have plenty of potential heading into their first season under Keatts’ leadership, there’s still much to learn for a team looking to surprise people in the CAA before they begin their regular season slate next week at Old Dominion.

“We need to do a tremendous job of blocking out,” Keatts said. “When you start playing teams like Old Dominion and you start getting into your conference, you have to do a better job hitting people. I just want our guys to play relaxed. My biggest thing is, and I’ve told all those guys in the locker room, ‘I’m never taking you out of the game for taking a bad shot. I will take you out if you blow a defensive assignment.’ So, my job in the whole week is not any more execution stuff. It’s just to get these guys to relax and understand who they’re playing for.”