Defending a title ain’t easy – just ask the New Orleans Saints – but the Carleton men’s basketball team is off to an admirable start.
After dropping their first three games, two of them ambitious match-ups with Division-II squads in Hawaii, the Knights have returned home and elevated their play for the conference season. After Wednesday nights’ 60-56 grinder against Bethel, Carleton stands second in the MIAC standings at 6-1 (7-5 overall).
Wednesday’s contest was far from sexy, but the Knights found a way to win, using a late second-half surge to put away a pesky Bethel squad. Seth Jonker ’11 led a balanced attack with 13 points and eight rebounds, while Danny Geiger ’14 came off the bench to score a career-high 12.
“We showed a lot of grit and determination,” head coach Guy Kalland said. “If you just put the letter W on the board, there’s no such thing as an ugly one.”
The first half of Wednesday’s game did its best to disprove Carleton’s sage skipper, however, as the teams combined for a whopping 11 points over the contest’s first 10 minutes and went into halftime with a football-like score of 18-18 on the board. The Knights could easily have built a first half lead, but they shot just 4-of-11 from the free throw line and Bethel’s Daniel Baah hit a ridiculous three-pointer as time expired.
The Knights continued to struggle into the second half, and things were looking dire when Greg Meyer hit a three to put the Royals up 39-33 with 8:05 to play. After 32 minutes of sloppy play, however, Carleton finally found its inner Heath Ledger and the rest of the way it was the Knights’ tale.
Carleton quickly erased the deficit and assumed control of the contest, going on a 10-0 run capped by Geiger’s drive and dish to a wide open Tom Sawatzke ’13, who buried the triple to put the Knights up 43-39 and send the student section into frenzy.
“It’s what he does,” Kalland said of the sweet shooting Sawatzke, who scored all 11 of his points in the second half.
Bethel managed to tie the game back up two and half minutes later, thanks in part to a preposterous intentional foul called against Jeremy Sutherland ’11 which led to four Royal points.
But the Knights once again summoned the necessary valor, responding with another 10-0 run that included a second triumphant trifecta from Sawatzke. Geiger closed the spurt with a nice drive and layup that put the Knights up 58-48 with 37 seconds remaining and elicited cheers so hearty from the Carleton fans that folks in Geiger’s nearby hometown of New Prague swore they could hear them.
“It was fun to finally break through and get real comfortable out there,” said the fresman phenom, who saw his first crunch time minutes of the year on Wednesday. “I’m understanding [the offense] more and that’s leading to playing a little bit better.”
The Knights didn’t need as much drama to put away Saint Mary’s last Saturday. After losing its first conference game in heartbreaking fashion three days before, Carleton came out incredibly focused and dominated from start to finish, taking down the Cardinals for the 21st straight time, 74-57. The Knights made the West Gym nets sing all afternoon, shooting a red-hot 61.5 percent from the floor, the second best performance in program history.
Indeed, the squad needed Saturday’s win after the one that got away last Wednesday. Playing undefeated and fifth-ranked rival St. Thomas at its brand new athletic complex, Carleton was moments away from following up last season’s brilliant MIAC semifinal shocker with another upset of the Tommies, but missed free throws down the stretch and a buzzer-beater from nemesis Tyler Nicolai doomed the Knights to a 62-59 setback.
That loss remains the lone setback on a conference schedule full of tough opponents. As usual, it’s defense first for Carleton, as the Knights are holding their foes to a conference-best average of 60.2 points per game.
Individually, a mix of old and new has led the Knights this season. As expected, all-MIAC stud Sutherland has been a force on both sides of the ball. The senior guard is eighth in the conference at 15.3 points per game and fifth in assists (3.82), while continuing to shut down opponents with ferocious defensive efficiency.
Rising from the woodwork to join him has been Caleb Rosenow ’12. Relegated to bench-warming duties his first two seasons, the Red Wing tower has exploded onto the scene this season like a fireworks show over the Mississippi. The junior is making an early case for Sixth Man of the Year, averaging 10.7 points and 5.0 rebounds per game off the bench, while posting a .558 field-goal percentage, ninth best in the conference.
Rosenow, Sutherland, and the rest of the gang will be back in action tomorrow afternoon as the Knights have a hot date set up with third-place Gustavus Adolphus (7-5, 5-2 MIAC) in St. Peter. Last time Carleton traveled west to Gusties’ prairie town home was Feb. 27, 2010, and the Knights returned with the MIAC Championship trophy, having vanquished GAC in an overtime thriller to deliver the program its first playoff crown in history.
If the Knights hope to repeat this season, they will need to keep winning, whether it looks good or not.
“We’ll have to clean up our offensive end of the game and come out with the same tenacity on the defensive end of the floor,” Kalland said of tomorrow’s match-up.
If you can’t make it to St. Peter for the game, tune in to the webcast on carleton.edu/athletics and be sure to head to West Gym on Monday when the Knights welcome the up-and-coming Macalester Scots to town for a 7:30 p.m. contest.