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Wildcat Weekly: ‘Cats Escape Two Nailbiters, Become Ranked

Wildcat Weekly | Edition 9 | Cole Vulpis
From @DavidsonMBB on Twitter.

Here we are. The team picked 6th in the A10 is now ranked 25th in the AP Poll. Davidson has won 15 straight and have started 6-0 in Atlantic-10 play to earn their first ranking since March 9, 2015. This is the ‘Cats 9th season being ranked since the AP Poll debuted in 1949.

Conference opponents have brought their A game against Davidson; the Wildcat’s average margin of victory over conference opponents is 6.3. VCU and Fordham this past week are part of the reason the average is as low as it is. Both of these games were decided by 3 points or less. With a ranking in front of their name, Davidson will look keep the streak alive to further build their NCAA Tournament resume.

Davidson at VCU

From ESPN.

After having 16 team turnovers against Richmond, the ‘Cats had a chance to right the ship in their next game against VCU. The problem is that VCU isn’t exactly the team you want to face if you’re looking to minimize turnovers. VCU forced a Davidson turnover in the first minute, and they would force 8 more in the half. But this did not end up being devastating for Davidson. After going back-and-forth for the first five minutes, Davidson began to heat up. Davidson went 5-8 from deep in the half, a great mark against a team that has held opponents to 26.3% this season from behind the arc. VCU also struggled to find offense of their own, and the ‘Cats led 36-28 at the half.

Just before the half ended, Grant Huffman took a hit to the face on a shot attempt. He made one of two free throws but would not return after scoring 5 points in the first half. Huffman would end up missing Davidson’s next game against Fordham, too.

In a similar fashion to the Richmond game, Davidson struggled to hold their lead at the start of the second half. VCU outscored Davidson 13-4 in the first five minutes and took the lead. Davidson stuck with them, but with just over five minutes remaining, a jumper from Jayden Nunn put VCU up six. Then, Foster Loyer, who had been averaging 1.2 turnovers per game, committed his 7th turnover. This was the team’s 17th turnover, tying a season high. On VCU’s next possession, Loyer committed his fourth foul. With Huffman out, Davidson did not have their usual backup point guard, meaning Loyer fouling out could be devastating for the ‘Cats. VCU had a chance to run away with the game.

But they didn’t. Ace Baldwin missed a jumper on VCU’s next possession, and Luka Brajkovic responded with a three, his second of the night on two attempts. In the next possession, Loyer assisted Brajkovic on a dunk. And on the possession after that, Loyer knocked down two free throws. In the blink of an eye, Davidson led 60-59.

Davidson held on to this lead into the final 30 seconds. The score was 62-59, and a bucket from Davidson could put VCU away. But they couldn’t make one, and VCU made a quick layup to get within one. Now, Davidson—who nearly lost their games against Alabama and Richmond with late-game turnovers—had to safely inbound against one of the most ferocious backcourt presses in the country. But Davidson was done turning it over after the aforementioned one from Loyer. They successfully inbounded the ball and Lee was fouled. He made one of two. Ace Baldwin now had a chance to do what he did against Dayton: score a game-winner. He flew down the court and threw up a shot. Miss. He rebounded the ball and immediately put it back up. Miss. Davidson got the rebound and won 63-61.

Luka Brajkovic led the team in scoring with 19 points. Hyunjung Lee, who had been leading the conference in scoring, had 6 points, snapping a 20-game streak of scoring in double figures. Brajkovic and Michael Jones shared the team’s lead in rebounds with 6, a career high for Jones. Loyer led in assists with 4. The ‘Cats shot 50% from the field, 50% from deep, and 78.6% from the line. Davidson outrebounded VCU 32-20.

Davidson at Fordham

From ESPN.

The win against VCU was Davidson’s second Quad I win of the season, with the other being the win over Alabama. This team’s resume was continuing to improve, and it appeared that the 9-7 Fordham Rams would be an easy victory en route to a potential ranking in the AP Poll. Davidson was playing at Fordham, which would be their third road game in a row. But Fordham was not allowing fans. Moreover, Fordham’s previous leading scorer, Antonio Daye Jr., had entered the transfer portal. And their third leading scorer, Chuba Ohams, who averages a double-double, was out with injury.

The reason I say Daye was Fordham’s previous leading scorer is not because he left the team. It’s because a different Fordham player had such a good game that he passed Daye by more than a point. That player is Darius Quisenberry. Quisenberry posted 36 points, which included going 10-10 from the free throw line, as well as 5 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 steals. But the stats don’t tell the full story. Quisenberry seemed like he could get any shot to fall. Deep, contested three? That was a bucket for Quisenberry.

But to say Quisenberry was the reason Fordham competed against Davidson wouldn’t give Fordham’s other players enough credit. The team simply had Davidson’s number on defense.

The ‘Cats felt Fordham and their press from the get-go, only scoring 6 points in the first 10 minutes. When the sixth point went in, Brajkovic was feeling the emotion and got called for a technical for shoving a Fordham player. Fordham was later able to stretch their lead out to 11 with just over 2 minutes left in the half, but Davidson brought it back to 7 at halftime.

In the second half, Davidson did not immediately have an answer. After a three from Josh Colon-Navorro, Fordham had their largest lead when they led 40-27. On the next possession, Michael Jones missed a jumper and Fordham got the rebound. Despite the amount of time left, Fordham seemed to be in firm control of this game. Then, a call would be made that would end up completely changing the game.

Patrick Kelly boxed out Michael Jones after his miss and gave him an elbow right to the face. Kelly was called for a flagrant, and after some free throws and a dunk from Sam Mennenga, Davidson got essentially four free points. The ‘Cats went on an 11-0 run, and they would end up outscoring Fordham 42-26 after the flagrant. Brajkovic, who only played eight minutes in the first half per the announcer, had 19 points in the second half alone.

It should be noted that Davidson led by 7, their largest lead, with 1:19 left but almost lost it. After getting the 7-point lead, Fordham didn’t miss a single shot, going 2-2 from deep and 6-6 from the line. But Davidson was mostly successful in inbounding the ball and made their foul shots, going 8-8 in the final minute. Davidson led 69-66, and Fordham missed the three to force overtime.

From @CatsStats on Twitter/Instagram. Follow for graphics, stats, and live tweets.

Brajkovic led the ‘Cats in scoring for the second straight game with 21. Mennenga was one short of his career high with 16 points but had a career-high 11 rebounds to lead the team. Brajkovic led in assists with 3. Davidson shot 42.9% from the field, which was their third lowest mark this season. They shot 3-13 (23.1%) from deep, which was a season low in three-point attempts, three-point makes, and three-point percentage. They also shot 24-29 (82.8%) from the line, which is a season high in both free-throw attempts and free-throw makes. This was possible due to Fordham committing a whopping 27 fouls. Davidson outrebounded Fordham 38-28.

Takeaways

This team loves to make things interesting, don’t they? Four of Davidson’s six conference games have been decided by four or less points and Davidson survived every one of them.

Per the NCAA, the team currently averages 10.3 turnovers per game, which ranks 19th nationally. So having 16 turnovers against Richmond and 17 against VCU are definitely outliers for this team. I think that it can partially be attributed to VCU’s and Richmond’s defenses, who each rank in the top 50 nationally in steals per game. Nonetheless, the team’s struggle to maintain and build leads due to turnovers is certainly something they’ll want to solve in anticipation of their next matchup against VCU.

The team cut the turnovers down to 10 against Fordham, but Fordham’s defense clearly bothered Davidson given the low shooting percentages. Perhaps the more alarming statistics from the game are the individual ones. Lee was held under 10 for the second game in a row, as he only had 5 against Fordham. And Loyer, who was averaging 1.2 turnovers and 3.6 assists at the beginning of the week, averaged 2 assists and 5 turnovers this week, including having 0 assists against Fordham.

To say that Lee is slumping would be leaving out key information. Sure, having 20 consecutive games scoring over 10 points and then scoring 6 and 5 is uncharacteristic for him, but it’s not like he’s missing a bunch of shots. He just isn’t taking as many. Before this week, Lee was averaging over 12 field goal attempts per game against Division I opponents. This week he took 7 shots against VCU and 4 against Fordham. It is a large part of Lee’s game to create shots for himself, but it seems likely that much of the reason for the lower production is that teams are having more success defending him. Whether or not Lee and Davidson can figure this out will be something to watch going into this next week.

Loyer’s assist and turnover numbers are less concerning unless they continue. If anything, Loyer had quite a good week. Without Grant Huffman for one and a half games this week, Loyer played 38 minutes in both games. His previous career high was 34 minutes. He scored 14 and 15 against VCU and Fordham, respectively. More importantly, Loyer continued to show veteran leadership and poise when the game got close. Loyer had 4 personal fouls in both games this week, making it now three straight games where he played with four personals and didn’t foul out. Not only did he not foul out, but he proved to be very clutch in finishing off opponents. In the last minute of Davidson’s four games decided by four or fewer points, Loyer went 11-12 from the free-throw line, including going 6-6 against Fordham.

The biggest positive of this week has been Davidson’s inside presence. It says a lot about this team that they could win despite Quisenberry’s elite play, shooting poorly from three, and having Lee shut down. Brajkovic and Mennenga appeared near unstoppable, combining for over half of Davidson’s scoring. It is true that Fordham missed the presence of Chuba Ohams, but Brajkovic has been successful against nearly every A10 opponent so far, averaging 17.7 points in conference. And to see Mennenga productive is the cherry on top, given that he will be a major piece for Davidson this year and beyond. Davidson is certainly known for their three-point shooting, being second in the nation in three-point percentage, but this team is far from one dimensional. They can and will rely on beating some opponents on the interior.

A Look Ahead

The Davidson Wildcats have a rematch with VCU at home this Wednesday at 8:30. It will be aired on CBS Sports Network. They then will play La Salle at home on Saturday at 12:00. This will air on USA Network.

We will look to see if Huffman returns this week. Emory Lanier subbed in for Loyer instead of Huffman against Fordham, but didn’t contribute in any major statistic. Given that Huffman is the only point guard other than Loyer who has played major minutes this year, his return is definitely important for the ‘Cats.

Thanks for reading. Come back every Monday for another edition of the Wildcat Weekly! For more Davidson and Atlantic 10 coverage, follow me on Twitter @WildcatCole24.