REGIONAL: Historic run ends for Catawba in national semifinal

Published 10:08 am Thursday, March 23, 2023

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By Mike London

The offensive drought threatened to be endless.

Catawba’s women’s basketball team went 13 minutes, 20 seconds of scoreboard time without making a field goal at the St. Joseph Civic Center and it must have seemed like 13 hours to head coach Terence McCutcheon.

(A look at Stanly County’s player on the team can be found here.)

Catawba overcame a lot during a historic season, the longest and strongest in program and conference history.

Catawba made rousing rallies and broke records for victories, but 13-plus minutes was a field-goal famine of a magnitude that couldn’t be conquered. Not on the big stage.

The Indians lost 70-59 to Minnesota Duluth in the national semifinals in St. Joseph, Missouri.

Minnesota Duluth’s Bulldogs (32-3) were a towering aggregation with a brilliant player in 6-foot-2 All-America Brooke Olson.

Olson, long, aggressive, unflappable and deadly, torched Catawba for 34 points on 13-for-21 shooting.

The Indians (29-6) couldn’t find an answer.

Olson experienced one mild mini-drought herself, but she got the help she needed during that period from Ella Gilbertson, who scored seven of her 14 points in one fateful flurry.

Fouls hurt the Indians in a tightly called game. The whistles were spread around for second-seeded Minnesota Duluth, but Catawba standouts Lyrik Thorne and Sara McIntosh lost valuable minutes to fouls. Both eventually fouled out.

Sometimes it’s not rocket science. The stat sheet rarely lies. Catawba shot 27.6% to 48% for the winners. Throw in a 41-30 win on the boards by the taller Bulldogs, and it was a small miracle Catawba stayed in the game until the final minute.

Sixth-seeded Catawba was quicker. The Indians’ best chance was to force an avalanche of turnovers and get points off those turnovers.

They understood that, and they brought the pressure. Catawba had a 15-11 edge in the turnover battle, but needed a bigger margin there.
Credit Minnesota Duluth floor general Maesyn Thiesen. She played 40 minutes without wearing down or wearing out.

It started fine for the Indians. McIntosh got the first bucket and veteran Janiya Downs, who suffered through a foul-plagued Elite Eight game, was ready to redeem herself. Downs’ 3-pointer made it 5-0.
Catawba peaked at 14-7, up seven, on a layup by freshman reserve Mary

Spry with 3:25 left in the first quarter.

The Bulldogs grabbed their first lead — 19-18 — as the first quarter went in the books.

The key coaching decision of the game was by Minnesota Duluth’s Mandy Pearson after Olson picked up her second foul. Normally, a coach will sit a star for the remainder of the first half, but Pearson trusted Olson to keep playing.

She had some big buckets, had 15 points before halftime, and propelled the Bulldogs to a 38-33 lead the break.

MD’s lead was 36-33 after Catawba reserve Nala Baker turned a steal into a three-point play with 2:24 left in the second quarter.

Catawba’s scoring struggle started immediately after that, with a series of of empty possessions to close the half.

Still, down five at half after not playing all that well for 20 minutes, the Indians had to feel OK about where they were. All they needed was a sharp start to the second half.

They didn’t get it.

For the first four minutes of the second half, Catawba didn’t score at all, and the Bulldogs, who also were laboring to score, inched ahead 40-33.
Spry made two free throws with 5:36 left in the quarter. Then Thorne made two, and it was 40-37. Downs got to the foul line for two to keep Catawba within 42-39.

Olson scored twice and Gilbertson tossed in a 3-pointer to close the quarter with the Bulldogs on top 48-39.

Catawba was down, but even after shooting 0-for-11 in the quarter, the Indians had played hard enough on defense that they still had a shot.

They’ve overcome worse situations.

Gilbertson pushed MD’s lead to 50-39 early in the fourth quarter, but then Downs ended the seemingly endless drought for Catawba with a 3-pointer for 50-42 with 9:04 left in the game. It was the first bucket for the Indians since Baker’s layup with 2:24 left in the second quarter.
When Downs connected, Catawba had missed 15 straight field goal attempts (with three turnovers mixed in), but was only down single digits.

The Indians got as close as 56-52 when Jada Porter made a 3-pointer with 5:21 left.

But Olson, who scored 13 points in the fourth quarter alone, wasn’t going to let it get away. She turned it up a notch. She closed the door.

Downs tried to carry the offensive load and scored 20. Thorne, who had willed the Indians into the semifinals, couldn’t get much of anything to fall. She scored 11 and had four assists. McIntosh had nine points and eight rebounds.

Thorne broke the program record for most points in a season with 679. Angela Harbour had held that record with 648 since the 1992-93 season.
Thorne, Catawba’s first first team all-region player, also broke the program record for 3-pointers in a season with 80. That mark had been held by Chloe Bully, who made 73 long ones in 2011-12.