Hamilton, ON- As the calendar flipped into the new year, the McMaster men’s basketball team started on a high – and with some additions.
The Marauders have won four of their past five games after beating the Ontario Tech Ridgebacks 77-63 at home on Jan. 6.
The game marked several things. It was their first game of 2023. It was only their third ever game against Ontario Tech. It also marked the return of guards Johnny Kitenge and Cashius McNeilly.
Kitenge played in 16 regular season contests as a rookie in 2021-22. He saw some playing time this preseason but was injured early in the season and ended up missing almost the whole first half.
He said the road of recovery wasn’t easy and credited his teammates and the Marauders support staff.
“Sometimes you go through those dark times where you just don’t know if you’re going to get back on the court,” he noted. “Just watching your teammates is kind of hard but I was able to stick through it and now I’m here.”
Here was on the court of the Burridge Gym after beating Ontario Tech. Right after scoring 11 points in 13 minutes and dishing out two assists.
Marauders head coach Patrick Tatham said Kitenge has done well in his recovery but still has a ways to go. “He’s a very high IQ offensive player so we’ll take whatever we can get from him because it’s going to help a lot,” Tatham added.
His contributions helped against the Ridgebacks as the sides were locked into a close game for much of the first three quarters. Ontario Tech played a zone defence – which they’ve done throughout the season – and McMaster worked on breaking it down.
Part of succeeding against a zone comes from outside shooting. McMaster shot only 14.7 per cent from deep and 33.7 per cent from the field overall.
While the shots from deep weren’t falling, the team stuck to their “zone sense” – as Tatham called it. They’ve been working on it all week. They worked on ways to get inside the zone.
“Just getting to the middle of the paint,” Kitenge said. “Just getting to the gaps and finding open shooters.”
The home team did that throughout the game as they pulled away in the fourth quarter. Tatham knows the team will have to get better at it as they’ll be facing teams – like Toronto, Waterloo and Western – that will also play zone.
Their own defence also helped them attack against the zone, according to Tatham. They made steals throughout the game – 17 compared to Ontario Tech’s four – which led to transition scoring before Ontario Tech’s zone defence could be set. The Ridgebacks turned the ball over 21 times to McMaster’s 13 times.
Guards Mike Demagus and Sefa Otchere made crucial steals down the stretch – leading to baskets on the other end.
The players and coaches celebrated the victory with friends and family on the court afterwards. Amid the excitement, the Marauders have a lot to look forward to.
McNeilly’s presence in the lineup for one. The highly-touted NCAA transfer played in the preseason but was injured. He had five points, six rebounds and two assists against the Ridgebacks in his regular season debut.
“[McNeilly] was struggling a little bit but he’ll be fine,” Tatham said. “He’s working through rust.”
He mentioned the team overall was playing through rust after over a month between games. “It felt rocky but I’ll take a win anywhere we can on our home court,” he said.
The team’s climbing up the standings. After losing to the Brock Badgers last November, Tatham said the team would need to win three of the last four games of 2022. They did so with wins over Lakehead, Guelph and York. With a 6-5 record, they are only two wins behind second-place Brock.
Five of their six games in January are at the Burridge Gym. Tatham told his team to take care of their home court this month and to take the games one at a time. Up next, they’re facing Laurentian and Nipissing.
“Today was the first step in that six-game increment for the month so I’m looking forward to seeing what we do next week on a back-to-back,” Tatham said.
The Ontario Tech game also provided a glimpse into the Marauders squad with Kitenge and McNeilly in the lineup.
“We just got to see a little bit of what we can be in the future,” Kitenge noted. “Still think there’s a lot of room for us to grow but we look pretty good.”
Featured Image: Rick Zazulak/McMaster Athletics