ST. JOHN — Welcome back, Tahari Watson, it’s good to see you again.
The Michigan City junior hasn’t been gone, but his jump shot, hampered by some nagging knee issues, has been largely absent since an early-season hot hand.
“It would be really nice to get him back going,” Wolves coach Tom Wells said. “Quite honestly, he hasn’t been totally healthy. He’s been battling some knee issues we’re hoping are a growing thing because it’s both knees. Usually, if it’s tendinitis, it’s just one. One thing he has been doing is spending more time shooting the basketball.”
The extra work paid dividends for Watson and City on Friday at Lake Central, where he knocked down five treys in a 17-point outing that led the Wolves to a 61-54 Duneland Athletic Conference victory in a game they largely trailed until the last 68 seconds.
“Not that long,” Watson said of his past shooting slumps. “Summer time, I was getting up way more shots than during the season. I talked to (Michigan City alum) Ryan Taylor sometimes and he told me I wasn’t putting up enough shots. Coach (Wells) had me in the gym putting up extra shots after practice. My teammates tell me in practice, keep shooting. They want me to make them, so I’m going to make them. All my teammates were finding me and it came out tonight. It feels real good.”
Watson’s first three triples accounted for nine of City’s initial 15 points, a crucial early stretch that kept the Wolves within striking distance while they were struggling offensively.
“As soon as we think we’re getting better against a zone, it’s a struggle again,” Wells said.
MC led momentarily at 24-23, but was down the rest of the second quarter and all of the third, the LC margin ranging from one to six.
“We got there so many times and never got over the hump. It was one thing or another,” Wells said. “Talking to (assistant coach) Will (Walker), we’ve just got to make a couple plays in a row. We talk all the time about it’s not a boxing match. There are no knockout punches. It’s 32 minutes, especially the way we play, let’s see if we can get the pace, kind of impose our will. It just took us a while to do that.”
Down 49-43 with 5:46 left, the Wolves chipped away, pulling even at 50 on a Jamie Hodges, Jr., layup with two-and-a-half minutes left. Nick Anderson (26 points) canned a 3 to put LC back up but Watson promptly answered for City.
“We gambled up top a couple times in our 2-2-1,” Indians coach Dave Milausnic said. “We gave up a corner 3, that can’t happen, the other time, (Hodges) penetrated to the hole.”
After an LC travel, Wells went back to Hodges, who got to the rim again. He missed under pressure, but the attention he drew left Omarion Hatch open for a putback. Dez’Mand Hawkins’ steal and layup gave City its biggest lead (57-53) to that point with 58 seconds left.
“As soon as they (go man), we’re going to see if we can get a switch off a high ball screen. Even if (Hodges) doesn’t, at least he gets a head start,” Wells said. “That’s why teams are playing us zone. We finally got the pace to increase, we got them turned over and finally we get to play downhill. We started running and jumping. I was leery of that in the first half because they’ve got a bunch of guys who can shoot it and now they get to play four on three. That’s the risk you take when you do it, but you do it for tempo reasons.”
In a wild sequence of events after an Anderson missed free throw, Hunter Zezovski rebounded, but was called for a charge going up against Hodges. Zezovski was whistled for a technical, Watson made both foul shots and Hodges scored again at the rim to cap the 11-1 closing surge.
“Our energy, we picked up the defense the second half, way big,” Watson said. “We fought through it. (Anderson) was going to get his shots, but he had to get tough shots.”
No other player reached double figures for LC (11-9, 2-4), which committed six fourth-quarter turnovers and shot 4 of 17 in the second half.
“We missed some shots, they made some shots,” Milausnic said. “Overall, we took pretty good care of the ball, we just turned it over at the wrong time. They kept their composure and we lost it there the last minute. There’s a time or two we could’ve rotated quicker, but (Watson)’s a very good shooter. They’ve got four, five guys who can put it on the floor who you have to get out on.”
Evan Bush fouled out with 14 points at the 2:43 mark. Hawkins added 11. Hodges led City (12-5, 4-2) in rebounds, assists and steals.