Good Sport: Preaching the gospel of ball at Guilford College

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by Jeff Laughlin

East Mennonite University sounds more like a church — one with a sparse, brick façade and a large, wooden sign — than a Division III and conference rival of Guilford College. The dozens of folks crowding the bleachers on Jan. 31 didn’t seem to care what the college looked like, though. These Mennonites wanted blood. They wanted a sixth straight conference win.

Why wouldn’t they? The Quakers and Mennonites share a pacifist belief, but the people did not congregate for theological reasons. They came for spectacle, to forget about differences and worship athletics.

This wasn’t church. This was basketball. No matter what you believe, pure talent provided an advantage no God could thwart. Jesus didn’t suit up and guard Guilford’s Jonny Rice. Nor did Menno Simons stand in front of Guilford’s Matt McCarthy. His followers did. And like all religions eventually have, they fell.

McCarthy had just scored 44 points against Emory & Henry College a few days prior and continued to pour on points in the first half last Saturday. A pure jumpshooter, McCarthy dominated a strange first half. Guilford had every advantage — size, quickness, ability, all of it — but couldn’t put together a run. East Mennonite packed the lane, forcing Guilford to take deep jumpers. The long rebounds led to easy layups and dunks and the sense that maybe East Mennonite could run with the Quakers.

McCarthy quelled that with five threes in the first half, including three consecutive bombs that created the first separation Guilford saw.

McCarthy did not run off of screens, step back into his shot or even create much separation during his run. He just shot. His release needed so little time, his confidence level ran so high and his instincts felt so right that he fired away with no rebounders in place.

McCarthy shot with no recompense.

Once East Mennonite stretched its defense to guard McCarthy’s barrage, Guilford destroyed their hope.

Rice took over with an array of post moves and off-the-ball cuts in the second half. Finally having space to roam in the lane, Guilford fed the post almost exclusively to put the game out of reach.

Meanwhile, the Quakers defense had a much easier time defensively without having to sprint back in transition. A 2-3 match-up zone slowed the game to a slog — mixing superior footwork with shot altering near the rim. They held East Mennonite to 1 point over nearly 7 minutes of play, increasing their lead to 21 at times. In fairness, to use some basketball parlance, there seemed to be a lid on the basket on East Mennonite’s side. Layups rolled off, threes glanced the sides of the rim and the good shots fell to the wayside as they panicked.

Mennonite’s fear felt palpable — no shots would fall the rest of the game. Open shooters rushed to get the ball up before the zone reacted. Cutters stopped short of the lane, guards were making difficult moves out of simple plays. The Quakers caused some of that, but East Mennonite averaged 77 points a game coming in. They scored just 48 and only 17 in the second half. Their stagnation did not hinge on defense alone; this just wasn’t their day.

As the offensive struggles rose, Mennonite’s defense fell completely apart. They oversold on attempted steals and failed to double-team down low, allowing Rice to pile up points on easy shots.

That Guilford (15-4, 8-2 in the ODAC) never blew them out showed how slow and methodical the game played. Both teams exhibited exceeding patience. Not that they necessarily needed to be so patient. Either team could have used a few more drives to the basket to loosen up the lane or find some open shooters. Guilford played a bevy of guards and none of them seemed quick enough to exploit East Mennonite. On the other end, what quickness East Mennonite used, Guilford covered with that well prepared collapsing zone.

As the game waxed and waned from blowout to out-of-reach, Guilford began taking whole shot clocks to shoot. They knew that possessions didn’t matter anymore. Seeing no need to hammer home how dominant they had been, Guilford embraced the slog. The ugly shots, including consecutive shot-clock violations with 3 minutes left in the game, signaled the peaceful end to battle.

The two systems of thought found rest, but one found reward at the end of their match. No God favored Guilford on Saturday, they just played better. It wasn’t church; it was basketball — a subtle difference.

Guilford got its sixth straight, but all that really mattered was that the congregation left happy.