(Written for The Davidsonian in my capacity as sports editor. I will post everything I write on this blog as well as on Davidsonian.com)
Davidson took home the Hornets Nest Trophy for the second straight year by beating UNC-Charlotte 91-86 before a large crowd in what was certainly the best atmosphere at Belk Arena in the young season. Davidson led throughout, and impressively combated a substantial size differential with great post play and fantastic shooting. The game was not as close as the final score, as Charlotte scored a number of points in garbage time.
Charlotte was exactly the test Davidson needed at this point in the season. They presented substantial size up front and a veteran group of players that knows how to win. Mike Thorn Jr. is an NBA-quality center and his frontcourt partner Willie Clayton is one of the best offensive rebounders in the country. For a Davidson team that has struggled to rebound the ball this season, this was a big ask.
Despite an uncharacteristic 18 turnovers, Davidson passed the test with flying colors, shooting 58% on the day while out-rebounding Charlotte 37-31. Davidson’s bigs deserve tremendous credit for their work on the blocks today. They not only out-rebounded the 49ers, but they shut down Thorne Jr, limiting him to 10 points and 5 rebounds. Of the many highlights from today, that may be the most exciting for the future of this team.
“[This win] is huge for us,” Tyler Kalinoski ’15 said after the game, “We made some mistakes, but we kept fighting. The way we fought today shows a lot going forward.”
Davidson looked to attack the interior of the Charlotte defense with a vigor that hasn’t always been there, sending Clayton and two other 49er starters to the bench early in foul trouble. The ‘Cats hit the offensive glass and looked for cutters to beat the 49ers’ zone. Jordan Barham ’16 was especially effective against the zone in the first half, providing a huge spark off the bench for Davidson. Barham, who’d been averaging 9.0 points in just 12.8 minutes per game, hit his first 6 shots and had 13 first half points, finishing with 16 points on 7-8 shooting and 5 rebounds. In addition to his usual high-energy dunks, Barham impressed when he had the ball in his hands, facing up defenders and blowing by them.
Kalinoski caught fire in the second half, hitting five threes and making a wide variety of baskets when Davidson needed them most. All 19 of his points came after the break. The senior captain, who came into the game second in the Atlantic 10 in assist/turnover ratio, had another great overall performance, with 3 rebounds and 4 assists to go along with only 1 turnover.
“Tyler’s the heart of our team,” Coach Bob McKillop said of Kalinoski’s performance after the game, “Without doubt, he’s the one that makes us go. He’s got great courage, he’s got terrific tenacity, he’s a selfless teammate and he’s a winner.”
Davidson caught fire from behind the arc at the start of the second half, sending Charlotte back to man-to-man defense as they made their first 4 threes in the opening minutes to extend the lead up to 12 soon after the break. However, Charlotte found a lot of success getting the ball inside to Clayton as the second half wore on and kept the game close as Davidson’s fouls piled up. But Clayton’s 4th foul, which came with 12:22 left and the 49ers trailing by seven after he’d already scored 10 second half points, saw the Wildcats regain the momentum. A Kalinoski three followed by a Barham three gave Davidson a 75-62 lead with 8:32 to play.
Clayton soon returned only to foul out with more than 5 and a half minutes remaining. That was the final nail in the coffin. Charlotte was unable to get back into the game in the final minutes as Davidson kept making shots. Whenever the 49ers made a basket, Davidson would respond with a big one of their own deep in the shot clock. But to their credit Charlotte never quit, and made a few baskets right at the end to make the score as close as it was.
Davidson needed to play tougher today to combat Charlotte’s size advantage, and they got a boost from Andrew McAuliffe ’17. McAuliffe bodied up the 6-11, 270 pound Thorne Jr on the defensive end to aid Jake Belford ’16, Nathan Ekwu ’18 and Peyton Aldridge ’18, who were all in a lot of foul trouble. McAuliffe, whose action has been limited this year, stepped up in a big way. In addition to his defensive efforts, he also found ways to contribute offensively, tipping in one basket and dunking another, while occupying defenders down low.
That presence inside the arc helped get Brian Sullivan ’16 some better looks behind the arc. Sullivan, Davidson’s marksman who came into the game only 5-30 from three for the year, knocked down a triple on the first possession and made two more before the 10 minute mark of the first half, finishing with 13 first half points and 15 overall. It was a solid response from the captain, and one which will hopefully get his season going.
Davidson had used a 9-0 run to take an early 17-9 lead, but both teams shot the ball incredibly well and traded buckets for much of the first half. However, Davidson took a 45-38 lead into the break. With Clayton and Pierria Henry, the 49ers top perimeter defender, on the bench for much of the first half in foul trouble, Davidson found a way to out-rebound Charlotte 20-12 in the first half. Thorne was limited on the offensive end, more helpful as a means of drawing the Davidson defense into the paint and opening up lanes for Charlotte guards to attack.
Jack Gibbs ’17, coming off the Atlantic 10 player of the week award, chipped in 12 points and 5 assists for the Wildcats. For Charlotte, Clayton led the way with 17 points despite playing only 16 minutes. 5 others finished in double figures for the 49ers.
The annual “Battle for the Hornet’s Nest Trophy” has been contested each of the last 34 years. The Mecklenburg County rivalry has taken on added heat in recent years. Among Charlotte fans, there is a bit of a grudge held as recent conference changes for both schools have seen Davidson take Charlotte’s place in the Atlantic 10. (A year ago, Charlotte moved to Conference USA, a worse basketball conference in recent years, for the betterment of their football program). It must hurt that Davidson has now won two straight.
“Let’s face it, this is a game for the rights in the city,” McKillop said after the game, in which students wore shirts emblazoned with his nickname ‘The Silver Fox’ and his face, “And this is a terrific city, so it’s nice to get the victory this year.”
After lifting the trophy, Davidson’s next game is at home against Stetson at 4 pm on Saturday.