Davidson basketball coach Bob McKillop calls it “playing to win,” and it’s a mindset that’s tough to instill when you have a young team playing on the road in the Atlantic 10 Conference.
But McKillop’s Wildcats showed some steel down the stretch Saturday against La Salle, coming away with a 77-69 victory against the Explorers at Gola Arena.
“That’s how (McKillop) coaches us. He tells us to play to win, not to hesitate, just play basketball,” said freshman guard Jordan Watkins, who made two critical plays late to seal it for the Wildcats (17-6, 8-4), who stay in the thick of the Atlantic 10 race with the victory.
Watkins’ steal and basket with 2 minutes, 23 seconds left gave Davidson a 71-65 lead and capped a 7-0 run from which the Explorers (14-11, 6-6) weren’t able to recover.
Watkins wasn’t the only Wildcat to deliver when it mattered.
Earlier, Tyler Kalinoski had hit a 3-pointer after an offensive rebound by reserve center Andrew McCauliffe had kept the ball alive, giving the Wildcats a 67-65 lead with 3:30 left.
After an Explorers turnover, forward Jordan Barham followed a missed 3-pointer by Brian Sullivan, upping the lead to four with 2:40 left.
Then came Watkins’ steal and basket, which came on a pull-up jumper. A miss would have given La Salle life. Instead, it went in and the Wildcats had the cushion they needed.
“That’s a shot we practice, but that takes some guts for a freshman to take that,” said Sullivan, a junior guard who led Davidson with 28 points. “That was huge.”
But it was something that McKillop expects of his rapidly developing team that has just one senior – Kalinoski – in the rotation and has played seven games without leading scorer Jack Gibbs (injured knee).
“They know what shots to take and when to take them,” said McKillop, whose team remains one game out of first place in the A-10. “And they’re free to do it.”
The Wildcats also learned something from a defeat two weeks ago, when they blew a 13-point halftime lead at Saint Joseph’s and lost 75-70.
Against La Salle, the Wildcats let a 39-35 halftime slip away early in the second half. But this time, Davidson quickly recovered and fought back.
The Explorers led by as many as six points, 52-46, with 11:21 left. But consecutive 3-pointers by Sullivan brought the Wildcats right back. The game stayed close until those three big plays that made the difference.
“This game redefined the experience we had at Saint Joe’s,” McKillop said. “That put us back on our heels. Now we’ve got it back.”
Barham scored 18 and Kalinoski 16 for Davidson, which shot 50.9 percent from the field and made 12-of-27 3-pointers. The Wildcats could have made things easier on themselves had they shot better from the free-throw line (13 of 22).
La Salle, which took control early in the second half by pounding the ball inside to forward Jerrell Wright (15 points), outscored the Wildcats 32-22 in the paint. Forward Jordan Price’s 22 points led the Explorers.