McHENRY, Md. – Potomac State College showed Wednesday night why it's the top-ranked NJCAA Division II men's basketball team in the nation – but the host Lakers made their case as the type of team PSC would rather not see in the upcoming Region XX championship tournament.
Injury-riddled Garrett College, which dressed only seven players, gave the once-beaten Catamounts (26-1) all they could handle before falling, 79-69, in a contest that was a two-point game with less than 5 minutes remaining. GC led by seven points in the first half and six points after the break, but Potomac State stayed close until their depth, speed and outside shooting turned the tide.
Afterwards, PSC head coach Shawn White could not have been more effusive in his praise for the Lakers' effort.
"Give Garrett credit – they came to play," said White. "A couple of possessions either way decided this game.
"I'm a big fan of [GC head coach] Dennis Gibson's," added White. "There's not a truer class act. He does an amazing job for Garrett."
Meanwhile, PSC's Cortney Walton played an amazing second half. The 6-foot-4 freshman wing had 16 of his 18 points after intermission, including a quartet of critical 3-pointers, to help rally the Catamounts.
"Cortney Walton had a great second half," acknowledged White.
"He hit those big 3's from the corner – if he's not hitting those, it's a completely different game," said Gibson, adding, "Of course, that's why they are who they are."
GC (16-12) bolted to 6-0 and 12-9 leads as Zakeem Davis (game-high 22 points, team-high 6 rebounds) scored 10 points in the game's first 10 minutes. The Lakers took their biggest first-half lead at 22-15 on Strahinja Ivic's fall-away 3-pointer before PSC answered with a16-6 surge capped by a Jalen Williams trey that gave the Catamounts a 31-28 cushion with 1:49 left in the half.
Just when it appeared Potomac State might be taking control of the game, the Lakers took advantage of a huge opportunity for a five-point possession.
Walton fouled Davis to prevent a breakaway, but was called for a flagrant foul as a result. Davis hit both free throws, Nathan Payet (12 points) turned a layup into a three-point play when he was fouled by Leondre Rogers on the ensuing possession, and the Lakers took a 33-31 halftime lead.
GC's Meron Ghebreyesus banked home a jumper and scored on a reverse layup in the first 45 seconds of the second half to give the Lakers a 37-31 lead. The Catamounts answered with a12-0 surge that included 3-pointers from both Williams (15 points on 5 treys) and Walton, who also put PSC ahead to stay with a pair of free throws during the run. Ghebreyesus – who had 16 of his 18 points in the second half – stopped the streak with a layup, but Walton responded with another trey to give Potomac State a 46-39 cushion.
Garrett twice pulled within two points, the second time on two free throws by Ghebreyesus (3 steals) that made it 52-50 with 8:35 remaining. PSC's Calvin Wilder then sandwiched a pair of treys around three missed free throws by Davis to give the Catamounts a 58-50 lead with 7:33 to go.
Marin Lisica hit the front end of a one-and-one to get Garrett within 59-57 with 5:11 remaining, but Walton drained back-to-back treys to make it 65-57. The Lakers twice pulled within four points, but could get no closer.
Ramone Williams scored 14 of his 18 points in the first half to tie Walton for team-high scoring honors. Wilder (11 points) was the fourth Catamount in double figures.
Gibson was more than pleased with his squad's effort.
"We just played the No. 1 team in the country with – generously – six guys," said Gibson, noting several of those players were nursing injuries. "If we can get everyone back for regionals, we can be very competitive."
The third-seeded Lakers will play sixth-seeded host Cecil College next Friday in an NJCAA Division II Region XX quarterfinal at a time to be determined. Top-seeded PSC will be in the other half of the draw – although GC and Potomac State could meet in the March 10th region title game if both advance that far.