With four games remaining, there’s little room for error for the Hillsdale College men’s basketball team.
At 7-9 in the GLIAC, the Chargers trail the Ohio Dominican Panthers (13-9, 8-8 in GLIAC) by one game for the eighth and final GLIAC Tournament spot. Hillsdale will close its regular season schedule at Ohio Dominican on Feb. 18.
Sitting between the Chargers and the Panthers are the Walsh Cavaliers, who are 7-8 in GLIAC play. Tonight, Hillsdale will take on the Cavaliers in North Canton, Ohio, at 7:30 p.m. The winner doesn’t clinch a playoff spot and the loser isn’t eliminated from postseason contention, but the Chargers know how vital a victory would be.
“It’s a must-win,” junior guard Stedman Lowry said. “We just have to go into it fired up and ready to compete.”
The Chargers will play three of their final four games on the road, starting tonight at Walsh. Hillsdale is just 2-6 away from home this season.
In their most recent road game on Feb. 2, the Chargers fell 88-74 to the Findlay Oilers, who lead the GLIAC South Division and have the “best home-court advantage in Division II,” according to Lowry. Findlay jumped out to an early 19-6 lead and took a 44-25 advantage into halftime. The Chargers cut the deficit to 8 points with 7:30 remaining in the second half but couldn’t pull closer.
“It’s a heck of a place to play at,” head coach John Tharp said. “When you play there you have to be really mentally tough, and you’ve got to be resilient. We weren’t quite that.”
After struggling to find their rhythm on the road, the Chargers returned home Saturday and put up perhaps their best all-around team performance of the season. Five Hillsdale players scored in double figures in an 80-55 rout of the Ashland Eagles.
“It was huge momentum for us to go into the rest of the season to win these last four games, because we pretty much have to win all four,” Lowry said. “Just how we played — overall, on defense, offense, everything — I think it was exactly what we needed to get us started.”
Senior forward Rhett Smith led Hillsdale with 17 points on 6-of-8 shooting. Sophomore guards Nate Neveau and Harrison Niego each scored 15 points. Sophomore forward Nick Czarnowski scored 12 points and grabbed 6 rebounds off the bench, Lowry added 10.
As a team, the Chargers shot 59 percent from the field (32-of-54) and 50 percent from beyond the arc (11-of-22).
“When you make shots you look really good,” Tharp said. “We had multiple guys making shots, and I thought we did a great job of moving the basketball… We just played inside-out throughout the game and we wore them down.”
Hillsdale was just as impressive on defense as they were on offense. The Chargers held the Eagles to 38 percent shooting (22-of-58) and forced 18 turnovers while committing just 8 turnovers themselves.
“We played really good team defense today and we did a great job of controlling the ball,” Tharp said. “We worked really hard on all their dribble-pitch and all their penetration and we really tried to prevent them coming down the middle on us. We were much better with our one-on-one defense.”
With just one game remaining at Dawn Tibbetts Potter Arena, the Chargers must figure out how to translate their success at home into wins on the road.
“It’s just been a roller coaster. That’s been the difficulty for all of us — you see it at times, you see it in us,” Tharp said. “I’m encouraged because I think we are starting to play better but we haven’t been great on the road, so that’s the next hurdle for this team to face.”
Ultimately, success will come from the defensive side. In the two road games the Chargers have won this season, they held their opposition to 65 points and 60 points.
“We have to take our defense with us. How we defended on Saturday, if we defend like that every game, we’ll win all four,” Lowry said. “And we have to have good starts because we’ve come out flat on the road. If we can just get ourselves going early, I think that’ll change everything.”
Hillsdale’s task tonight at Walsh will be to contain senior forward Trey Fletcher and senior guard Zac Carter. Carter leads the GLIAC in scoring with an average of 24.5 points per game. Fletcher is third in the conference, averaging 21.7 points per contest.
On Jan. 19, the Chargers lost to the Cavaliers 79-77 on a last-second jumper by Carter from just inside the top of the arc. Carter finished that game with 26 points and Fletcher scored 32 points.
“We have to play the best defense we’ve played all year against arguably two of the best players in the league,” Lowry said.
With a win, the Chargers would leapfrog Walsh in the standings and could move into a tie with the Panthers if they lose to Findlay tonight.
“We’ll battle,” Tharp said. “We’ll try to throw a punch at them and see if we can just be solid for 40 minutes.”