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Hillsdale went 2-0 as the hosts of the Hillsdale Lanes Thanksgiving Classic. (Photo: MaryKate Drews | Courtesy)

As Hillsdale College students set off for home after classes on Nov. 21, the Charger men’s basketball team was gearing up for the Hillsdale Lanes Thanksgiving Classic. After two wins over Lewis University and Purdue Northwest University in the event, head coach John Tharp sent the players home to spend Thanksgiving with loved ones.

“I wanted them off campus for just a little break,” he said.

And though some of the players were unable to get home, they didn’t go hungry. Because when the Hillsdale College basketball team says they are a family, they mean it.

“We really value the family atmosphere of our team,” said junior point guard Nate Neveau.

“The majority of people who live close by were able to go home but some of us went to Coach Tharp’s for dinner.”

After suffering its first loss against the Ferris State University Bulldogs, ranked No. 3 in the nation, the team showed that though it can boast of a 6-1 record, there is always room for improvement.

“We played a fine first half, a poor second half. Our lack of offense affected what we were able to do on the defensive end. We talked about toughening up mentally when we got back,” Tharp said.

After shooting 50 percent from beyond the arc in the first half, Hillsdale headed into the locker room at halftime trailing 35-33. But Hillsdale’s first half defensive toughness, which forced 8 Bulldog turnovers, didn’t continue. In a six-minute stretch during the second half, Ferris State erupted for 19 unanswered points.

Even with senior guard Stedman Lowry shooting 80 percent from three point range for a team-leading 18 points, Ferris State’s run was insurmountable. The Charger forwards had their work cut out for them against D-II All-American center Zach Hankins, who led the Bulldog offense with 13 points in the contest.

Five days removed from their first loss of the season, the Chargers took the floor at Dawn Tibbetts Potter Arena and overcame an 11-point halftime deficit to pick up a quality 71-58 win against Lewis University.

After a defensively-lax first half, the lessons learned from the loss at Ferris State hit home for the Chargers.

“Our first half against Lewis was not good. Then we got tough,” Tharp said. “Defensive toughness has got to be the key to be successful.”

In the second half, the Chargers held their opponent to 20 points, forcing 10 turnovers and holding the Flyers to 35 percent sho oting from the field.

Stedman Lowry, playing through the pain of a broken big toe, shot 6-12 from beyond the arc for a team-high 20 points. Junior forward Nick Czarnowski added 12 points and 9 rebounds and Junior forward Gordon Behr filled the stat sheet with 9 points, 5 rebounds, and 2 blocks in 35 minutes.

The next day, the Chargers were back in action against Purdue Northwest to pick up a 66-55 win in which their stout defense held the Pride to 18 points in the first half.

Czarnowski fought hard in the post for the Chargers and finished with 21 points and 7 rebounds while adding 2 blocks and 3 steals. Tharp was impressed with the performance of the seasoned big man.

“It really started last year, he came off the bench and put up big numbers,” he said. “He is finishing around the rim, his post up game is pretty darn good, we want more rebounds out of him but he has done a nice job posting deep and using his body well. He gives us that inside threat.”

Czarnowski credited his teammates with his impressive performance.

“They can’t put too much attention on me because if they do, we have a lot of guys who can really light up the scoreboard,” he said. “Every time I catch the ball in the post, I know that I can throw the ball in any direction and one of my teammates can score it.”

After that win and a Thanksgiving feast, the Chargers returned to action this past Sunday on the road against Saginaw Valley State University where they pushed their record to 6-1 with a 79-55 victory.

With senior guard Ryan Badowski playing limited minutes due to an ankle sprain suffered during the win against Purdue Northwest and Stedman Lowry playing during his recovery, the Chargers needed someone to step up and score.

Enter sophomore point guard Dylan Lowry, who scored 19 points on 6-8 shooting with 2 triples including a half-court heave as the shot clock expired.

“Dylan is really good in ball-screen situations. Because of some of the pressure, we played both point guards together. They complemented each other,” Tharp said. “He is really talented offensive player and he really helped us break them down.”

Despite Dylan Lowry averaging just over three points per game through the first six games of the season, his teammates were not surprised by his scoring ability.

“We are not a team where one guy is going to always carry the load,” Neveau said. “Our last game, Dylan Lowry stepped up for 19 points when some other guys were limited. The talent and ability is there but the opportunities aren’t there always. We will continue to see other guys step up.”

Behr proved he can shoot the ball as well. The big man, who averages only 4.3 points per game, added 14 points on 6-9 shooting with 7 rebounds, 7 assists, 3 steals, and 4 blocks.

With new players stepping up, Czarnowski said that the number of scorers on the team causes issues for opposing teams.

“On any given night, we don’t know who is going to be our leading scorer,” he said. “That is dangerous for the other teams.”

And the smothering Hillsdale defense should also worry opposing teams. The Chargers held Saginaw Valley to 16 points in the first half, making it three games in a row in which they held an opponent to under 20 points in one half of play.

With two weeks left of classes, the Chargers’ academic load increases in proportion to the time the team spends traveling.

“I am always worried about this time of year for us, because of the academic rigor. The week leading up to break is brutal with tests and papers,” Tharp said. “We see the pale faces, the blank stares. We wear it as a badge of honor to a certain degree.”

G-MAC play begins this week with the Chargers playing Thursday at Trevecca Nazarene University on Thursday and at Kentucky Wesleyan University on Sunday. And after a successful non-conference schedule, Tharp believes his team has played teams with different specialties to prepare for G-MAC opponents.

“Saginaw and Ferris State like to pressure. Lewis has big-time scorers, we knew they were going to zone us a bit, Southern Indiana a heralded program with scorers and athletes and quickness,” Tharp said. “We hope we are ready and battle-tested.”