With 57 seconds remaining on the Ban Johnson Arena clock Saturday and Marietta College leading John Carroll University 98-87, Jon VanderWal was still nervous.
"Even when we were up 10 with a minute to go, I didn't really feel safe," said the fourth-year MC men's head basketball coach after the Pioneers claimed a 101-90 decision. I've seen John Carroll win games like that before."
"John Carroll is never out of a game," he continued. "They play really hard. But our kids did a good job of taking care of the basketball down the stretch."
With the victory, MC (14-2, 7-2) halted a two-game slide, and remained atop (with Capital University) the Ohio Athletic Conference (OAC) standings going into the second round of the campaign, which tips off at Baldwin-Wallace Saturday. Knocking off JCU was in many ways a must-win for the Pioneer program, especially after last Wednesday's 82-74 setback to the Crusaders at BJA.
"There was a sense of urgency," VanderWal said. "Urgency was the word we'd been using all week. Not just about winning the game but just playing with a sense of urgency on every possession."
"We thought this week that if we're going to have a chance to win the OAC, we're going to have to figure out how to beat Capital and how to beat John Carroll - and then we have to take care of the other games," the Pioneer boss continued. "But the championship goes through those two schools. We've got to figure out how to beat them. So, today (beating John Carroll) was a big step for us."
A big step indeed. In the all-time series, Marietta College had suffered 18 straight losses to the Blue Streaks. And, to beat them, the Pioneers had to torch the nets, shooting 56.9 percent (33 of 58) from the floor, including 60.9 percent (14 of 23) from 3-point range.
"We feel like we're a really deep team. We kind of got a philosophy of running guys in and out to keep guys fresh, especially when you play John Carroll," VanderWal said. "At the end of the game, you have to have fresh legs."
Thing is, JCU didn't shoot that badly itself, 46.7 percent on 35 of 75 from the field. And, it did score 90 points, which can win a lot of games in the OAC.
"This year, there is so much parity in the conference," said veteran John Carroll coach Mike Moran. "It's unbelievable. Playing on the road is tough.
"I'm not disappointed in our kids. We had opportunities. Obviously, we had some breakdowns, and hopefully we can get back on track. We're just going to have to put this game behind us and move on."
Looking at the schedule, Marietta College will be capping regular-season play at Capital University on Feb. 16 and at John Carroll on Feb. 19.
Needless to say, a lot could be at stake in those games.
"If Marietta brings their 'A' game like that again, I think I'm going to sit on their bench," Moran said jokingly.
"When you're shooting the ball from that distance, if it's going in, you look like a genious, you look like a great coach, but if it's not...."
On Saturday, it was - fortunately for the Pioneers.
Ron Johnston is the Marietta Times sports editor and can be reached at 376-5441 or at firstname.lastname@example.org