For a brief stretch in the second half, Eryk Watson took the game over.
The new guys, freshman sharpshooters Wes Lambert and Jordan Damron, finally loosened up and knocked down a pair of big shots.
With four seconds remaining, junior center Greg Hernandez dropped in a soft baseline jumper to pull Maryville College even, capping a Scots rally from 17 points down.
Each was a good sign for a Maryville team that, while talented, is very young. In the four seconds following the Hernandez bucket, visiting 13th-ranked Centre College showed just how young, Alex Lloyd’s break-out layup at the buzzer lifting the Colonels to a 73-71 win in the Maryville season opener Tuesday night at Boydson Baird Gymnasium.
“We just got behind and had to exert too much energy to come back,” Maryville coach Randy Lambert said.
Much is hoped for from a Maryville team that has its coach’s undivided attention for the first time in two decades this season. Randy Lambert stepped down from his role as the school’s athletics director this summer, freeing himself to focus solely on basketball. The Maryville icon, in his 29th season at the helm, wants badly to lead one of his Maryville teams to the Division III Final Four.
The Scots finished 24-3 a year ago, reaching their 10th consecutive NCAA tournament and collecting a school-record 17-game winning streak along the way.
In the silky Watson, 12.7 points per game a year ago, Maryville has the kind of all-court scorer who can get his own shot and lead such a team. The 6-foot-3 sophomore guard pumped in 19 points and pulled off four rebounds to lead Scots on Tuesday. With Maryville down by 17 with 11 minutes remaining, Watson erupted for 10 points in a 14-2 run to get the Scots back in it.
“It was good to see Eryk Watson catching fire,” Lambert said.
If only it had come sooner. If only Wes Lambert, Damron and Maryville’s young shooters hadn’t needed a half to shake off the jitters. If only the Scots had gone to Hernandez, 16 points and seven rebounds, and fellow junior Chris Orr, 10 points and five boards, sooner.
Those are what-ifs to be answered in the coming days, and, with a big holiday swing through Georgia looming, it’ll have to be done soon.
Maryville has reason for optimism this season. The Scots have good size around the basket in the 6-8 Orr and 6-6 Hernandez. An all-conference selection a year ago, Orr returns 11.2 points and 5.2 rebounds per game to a Maryville team looking to make history this season.
Power forward Andrew Shumate is poised for a big year following offseason ankle surgery. Watson, most valuable player of last season Great South Athletic Conference tournament, is a genuinely brilliant scorer.
Junior Tyler Fosnes proved Tuesday he’s a player to watch this season. Tim Blakely is the kind of tough, hard-nosed front-court banger that wins games for you.
It’s what Maryville is missing and how the Scots go about replacing it that will be key.
Maryville lost swing man Ben Williamson for the season with a knee injury over summer. The Bearden High School product was an established, big-game threat. With Williamson, Watson and junior point guard Jared Laverdiere, the Scots had a backcourt trio capable of substantial perimeter firepower.
Take Williamson out of the mix and the dynamic changes a great deal.
“With the loss of Ben Williamson, we were forced to go with our youth,” Lambert said.
Someone, West Lambert, Damron or, perhaps, sophomore Dustin Brown, must step forward and take his place.
All three are local products, with Damron and Lambert from Maryville High, Brown from close-by Heritage. Each looked hesitant early on Tuesday, with Fosnes connecting on the Scots lone 3-pointer through the first 20 minutes.
“We were just too timid and afraid of making a mistake instead of attacking the basket like they (the Colonels) did,” Lambert said.
Mayville held a 29-28 lead at intermission.
The Scots came tearing back after Centre threatened a rout with 11 minutes left. Once Watson keyed the surge, the new kids weren’t kids anymore. Lambert’s 3 from the head of the circle trimmed the Colonels lead to four with 1:16 remaining. Twenty seconds later, Damron fired in a deep trey from the left side, reducing the deficit to a single bucket, setting the stage for Hernandez.
“Those were some huge shots that Wes and Jordan hit,” Hernandez said. “You think, six months ago, those guys are still in high school.”
Lambert said he’s confident his young guns will quickly find the pace.
“It’s going to take some time, and we knew that,” Lambert said. “Our schedule just doesn’t allow any breaks. We’ll be learning on the fly. You’re never happy to lose at home, but there were some encouraging moments.”
Maryville will bounce back, Watson said.
“I’m just glad we showed that if we’re down, we’re not out,” he said.
While the loss was tough, Watson said, it only made some words of advice from his high school coach ring all the more true.
“It’s not how hard you fall,” Watson said. “It’s how hard you bounce back. If you’re made of the right stuff, you’ll bounce back.”