If the college basketball season is a lifetime, as Winthrop men’s coach Pat Kelsey is wont to say, then High Point’s season so far is worthy of its own Lifetime Network TV special. The Panthers have seen it all in the last four months: a seven-game losing streak, hot and cold shooting, nagging injuries, a recent stretch of four wins in five games, and even a star player nearly dying on the court in late November.
Through it all, Scott Cherry’s club has kept trucking. Now, the Panthers (8-12, 4-3 Big South) are tied with five other conference teams at 4-3 in league play, and back in the hunt for an NCAA tournament bid. On Saturday at 7 p.m., they host Winthrop (10-9, 4-3), which hasn’t won in its last five visits to High Point’s Millis Center.
High Point’s troubles began before Thanksgiving. Playing Wofford, star 6-foot-9 power forward Allan Chaney collapsed to the floor in a terrifying resurfacing of a heart problem that nearly killed him when he was playing at Virginia Tech two years ago. Chaney survived the second scare, but finally has called time on his basketball career for good. Last season, he was named CBS Sports’ Comeback Player of the Year for 2012-13, and also made Big South All-Conference after averaging 14.5 points and 8.1 rebounds per game. Losing him was a hit to High Point’s team in multiple ways.
“When you lose a guy that’s one of your best players it’s just a very difficult circumstance,” Cherry said Friday evening. “We went through a stretch where the kids dealt with it, and they kept working and fighting. I just tried to keep them focused on the big picture, that the games in December aren’t going to determine the postseason.”
Chaney’s retirement coincided with a gnarly patch in the Panthers’ schedule, which featured Georgetown, Syracuse and Arkansas, as well as 2013 NCAA tournament teams Stephen F. Austin and James Madison. The Panthers lost to all of them during a winless December.
Cherry had to retool the High Point lineup after Chaney went down. The Panthers have used a starting lineup of one freshman, three sophomores and a junior 43 percent of the time this season, by far their most commonly used first five.
“I think it just took them a little bit of time to regroup from that loss,” said Kelsey, “but other guys have really stepped up their game. At the end of the day, they still have the best player in the entire conference (John Brown).”
After starting the season 4-11, High Point has won four of its last five games. High Point is shooting a league-best 52.4 percent from the behind the arc, and hit 14 in a win over Presbyterian on Tuesday.
Devante Wallace, who has hit 27 of 38 shots from 3-point range in his last six games, has been an offensive catalyst for Cherry’s club, averaging 18 points per game during the same stretch. The 6-foot-5 junior hit 8 of 9 from beyond the arc during Tuesday’s win over Presbyterian.
Winthrop junior guard Andre Smith said the key for the Eagles defensively against Wallace is “you don’t want to help off of him, because if you help off that means he’s getting open threes. We know what he wants to do, we’ve just got to be there on his catch.”
That’s more difficult because of the danger that Brown, a bouncy 6-foot-8 sophomore, poses. With Chaney out of the equation, even more of the burden has settled on Brown’s slender shoulders, and the Big South All-Conference first-teamer has stepped up, averaging over 20 points per game during the Panthers’ last six. He’s scored 20 or more in five of the team’s seven league games and is averaging over 19 per outing this season.
“(Brown’s) such a potent scorer no matter who’s on the floor,” Kelsey said. “I have so much respect for the caliber of player that he is. He can play at any level.”
Cherry was complimentary of freshman point guard Jorge Perez-Laham, who has also stepped forward for the Panthers. He’s dished out 32 assists, compared to just nine turnovers, in the five games since he stepped into a starting role after Dejuan McGaughey broke his hand. McGaughey’s status for Saturday is doubtful, but the Panthers still haven’t had a negative assist-to-turnover ratio in seven Big South games.
“It’s been a year of adjustments, it’s been a year of transition, a year of putting guys into roles that they maybe weren’t gonna be in unless something like this happened,” said Cherry.
The offensive efficiency has been key for a High Point team with some of the worst defensive stats in the country. Opponents are shooting a high percentage against the Panthers, but they are forcing turnovers in Big South play, leading the league in defensive turnover percentage. In the last two games they outscored Presbyterian and UNC Asheville 44-17 in points off turnovers.
Against a surging team on the road, Winthrop won’t be able to afford the kind of flat-lined starts they’ve produced the last three games. The Eagles trailed UNC Asheville 19-6, VMI 15-3, and Radford 18-2, and faced double-digit deficits at the half of each game. The surprising part of that is that Winthrop actually won one of those games, beating VMI at the buzzer.
Kelsey took some recommendations from players on what to do about the slow starts, but after looking at the film of the three games, he didn’t see anything different in the preparation. No smoking gun stood out. Maybe it was just part of this Winthrop season’s “lifetime.”
“As a coach you look at everything, you try to turn over every rock and sometimes you over-analyze,” said Kelsey. “But I don’t know; we’re really doing the same things we always did.”
Bret McCormick • 803-329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T