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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Knights off to strong start, 3rd in MIAC

<st of Carleton's student body was home for winter break, the men's basketball team started its season in impressive fashion, upsetting two Division II opponents on a Thanksgiving-week trip to Hawaii, then returning home to win five of its first seven conference games.

The weather was frigid Wednesday night, but the action in West Gym was sizzling with excitement as the Knights rallied from a ten-point second-half deficit to beat Augsburg 66-64. It was a total team effort for Carleton with four players in double figures. Senior forward and co-captain Zach Johnson led the way with 18 points and 8 rebounds, and freshman point guard Blaise Davis scored 15 points, including 10 in the second half comeback and the game-winning layup with 1:09 remaining on a pinpointed entry pass from junior forward Bryan Rosett.

“They were doubling Zach and Bryan, so I got open looks on the perimeter,” said Davis, who had 3 big three-pointers on the night. “[The win] keeps us at that top level with St. Thomas and Bethel.”

Indeed, with Wednesday’s victory, the Knights claimed the third-place spot in the conference standings, trailing only the Tommies and Gustavus. Bethel and the Auggies are close behind at 5-3. Making it to the top will be a difficult climb, though, as the Knights experienced last weekend.

On Saturday, the team, along with a spirited fan base, trekked up to St. Paul to take on #2 ranked St. Thomas. Johnson gave Carleton a Herculean effort, scoring 35 points, including 28 in the second half, but it was not enough as the Tommies used a strong defensive effort and good shooting to thwart the Knights 83-72.

The two teams battled evenly for much of the first half, with Carleton even taking a 26-21 lead with 4:41 remaining, but the Tommies raced back to take a 35-30 lead into the locker room. In the second half, St. Thomas was too relentless on offense, shooting a staggering 69% from the field. Johnson’s outburst, which earned him MIAC Player of the Week honors, had Carleton fans drooling in their seats and kept the Knights within striking distance, but they were never able to close the gap and returned home with just their second loss of the MIAC season.

Carleton will get another shot at the Tommies, though, when they come to West Gym on Saturday February 7th. They are eager for the chance at revenge. “Hopefully Zach will play as well as he did,” said Davis. “They’re very good.”

“Anybody who went to that game knows they’re a legit team,” agreed sophomore point guard Jason Weischedel. “While they beat us, it wasn’t one of those games where we played like crap and lost, and it wasn’t one of those games where we played the best game of our lives and lost. They’re good, and we have to be on our A game to beat a team like that. It’s a good lesson.”

While knocking off the second-ranked team in the nation would have been a standout win, the Knights had already achieved an arguably more impressive victory earlier in the season. December 1st on the sunny shores of Honolulu the Knights topped Division II Chaminade University 74-69.
“We played like we had nothing to lose and succeed,” said Weischedel. “That was a blast because they were a really legit, really athletic, good basketball team. It was nice to know that we could compete with such a good team.” Having already beaten Western New Mexico three days earlier, it was the team’s second defeat of a D-II opponent in the same week.

Making the victory even more impressive was the fact that Chaminade had recently matched up with several top Division I programs at the Maui Invitational. Five days before falling to the Knights, the Silverswords had come within two points of beating Indiana University.

In its own game, though, Carleton’s defense stymied Chaminade from the get-go, as the Knights held the Silverswords top two scorers to a combined o-fer. “To keep a team like that under 70 points was comforting. They had some D-I athletes who didn’t score, and kids hitting crazy shots, but they had to work for their points,” said Weischedel. Junior guard Jeremy Sutherland was especially key, as he locked down on University of Washington transfer Joel Smith, holding him to only 4 field goal attempts. Offensively, Johnson led the Knights with 27 points and Rosett contributed 20 as the program notched one of the biggest upsets in its history.

The Knights made the most of their trip to the Aloha State off the court, too, doing their duty as tourists by going to the beach and visiting historic sights. “We went to Pearl Harbor. We climbed a volcano,” Weischedel noted. “It was a lot of fun to get to bond with the guys,”

Returning home to colder climes, Carleton slipped initially, dropping their first game of the MIAC season to visiting St. John’s 81-70. Quick to rebound, though, the Knights went on to win five of their next six, including all four conference match-ups leading up to Saturday’s loss.

Most notably, the Knights traveled across town and pummeled St. Olaf in their own gym 65-47 on December 10th. Thanks to 23 points from Johnson, a double-double from Rosett, and stifling defense from start to finish, Carleton held onto the Goat Trophy for the 19th time in 20 years. “First half, we just played really good defense,” said Weischedel. “They have some good players and their leading scorer was pretty much held. He didn’t really do that much. We were clicking and we had adrenaline.”

After the football team’s triumph in October, the cross-town rivalry has had a distinctly maize and blue flavor this year. “It’s definitely nice to keep that school athletic momentum going,” Weischedel added. “Olaf’s obviously a big game in whatever sport you play them in, and it’s just nice to go out and win, especially by a substantial margin.”

The program came into the season looking to follow up a very successful 2007-08 campaign which ended with a 19-8 record, a trip to the MIAC playoff semifinals, and the loss of only one player, standout Tommy Drake, to graduation. Expectations were high for this year’s squad, especially with the arrival of a large and talented nine-man freshman class.

“They’ve all gotten a lot better throughout the year,” said Weischedel. “Especially from a defensive standpoint.” Right now, Davis and guard Kellen McLemore are the only ones seeing regular action, but Weischedel knows all nine will continue to improve. “It’s fun to watch,” he added. “There’s a bright future for Knights basketball.”

In the early going, the Knights have looked to big men Johnson (conference-leading 23.8 points/game, 6.9 rebounds/game) and Rosett (13.7 PPG, team-high 8.3 RPG) to carry them. One of the most prolific scorers in school history, Johnson has climbed to third place on Carleton’s all-time list with 1,723 career points.

“He does everything well,” said Weischedel. “He’s got moves, he can shoot, he knows how to get to the free throw line. Sometimes he makes moves and he takes a shot and I’m like, ‘what are you doing Zach?’ And then it goes in. So just let him play his game and good things are going to happen. He has great touch on the ball inside too, just knows how to finish.”

In addition to the dynamic forwards, the Knights rely on sophomore wingman Carter Biewen’s 3-point prowess as a key part of the offense. Also crucial to the team’s success in conference play will be the ball-handling and shooting of its point guard tandem, Davis and Weischedel, as well as the inside play of sophomore Seth Jonker.

The Knights were dealt a blow when Sutherland went down with a season-ending shoulder injury just after the start of term. In addition to averaging 8.7 points in the six games in which he played, the junior proved to be one of the best shutdown defenders in the conference.

Sutherland’s injury did have some silver lining, though: he played just few enough games that he will be able to redshirt this season and make himself eligible for two more years in a Carleton jersey. His sidelining has made way for the emergence of Jonker as the fifth starter and also created more playing time for athletic junior wingman Morris Nwogwugwu and senior co-captain forward Bobby Schmitz.

For the rest of the year, the Knights know they will need to rely on strong defense and mental toughness to succeed. “We were riding so high after Hawaii, and then after [St. Thomas] we kind of got a shock back into the real world and realized we can’t take anyone for granted,” Weischedel said. “We’ve got to bring our A game every week. Every team’s good, but we know we can beat any team.”

Check out the Knights in two big conference clashes this week as they host Bethel on Monday night at 7:45 and welcome Gustavus Wednesday for a 7:30 pm tip-off.

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