By Chris McManes
WASHINGTON – Catholic University Coach Steve Howes thought his team would be primed to play just its second home game since Jan. 8. Instead, the Cardinals turned in one of their worst defensive performances of the season at DuFour Center on Saturday.
CUA gave up its most points of the season, was on the wrong end of its largest rebounding deficit and never led in a 93-83 loss to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy.
"I'm very disappointed that we let down a great crowd today," Howes said. "We didn't bring it defensively and didn't keep our composure late in the game."
Merchant Marine won its third straight to improve to 9-10 and 4-5 in the Landmark Conference. The Cardinals dropped to 12-7 and is now tied atop the league standings with a 6-2 record.
The Cards had no answer for Mariners' center Nick Sergio, who posted career highs in points (34) and rebounds (18). He had a double-double by halftime and scored repeatedly inside. He led a quintet of players in double figures: Zach Karczewski (16 points), Matthew Miller (11), David Smith (10) and Preston Padgett (10).
CUA allowed Merchant Marine to shoot 54.4 percent, which ties the highest percentage it has given up this season. Sergio, a 6-foot-8, 235-pound senior, was 13 of 20 from the field. Karczewski was 6-for-9 and Miller 4-for-6. Karczewski collected seven rebounds as the Mariners held a whopping 45-27 rebounding advantage.
The Cardinals also let a lot of points on the floor by sinking just 23 of 35 (65.7 percent) free throws.
"We can't shoot free throws like that in our gym," Howes said. "And we've got to show more toughness on the glass."
Corey Stanford paced CUA with 17 points but was 5 of 16 shooting. Bryson Fonville (16 points) was just 5 of 17 and 5 of 10 from the line. He added nine assists and a pair of steals. Kyle Phanord totaled 14 points and grabbed a career-high seven rebounds. Steve Limberiou scored 11 points but uncharacteristically missed all four of his 3-point attempts.
Merchant Marine took an early 7-1 lead and stretched it to 12-5 on a Karczewski trey. A Phanord free throw brought the Cards to within 19-16. Sergio scored the next three points to spark an 8-0 run and put the Mariners up 27-16. The lead ballooned to as high as 16 on two Sergio foul shots, and Merchant Marine went into the break leading 44-33.
"I give them credit," Howes said. "They played very hard and very well from the start."
Sergio had 16 points and 10 rebounds at halftime, and the Mariners scored the most first-half points an opponent has on CUA this season.
After Miller secured one of Merchant Marines' 17 offensive rebounds, he made a layup to put his team up by 13. The Cardinals responded with eight straight points to draw within five, 46-41, with 16:21 to play.
Ahead 60-53, Sergio scored four points in the lane in the midst of an 11-4 run to make it 71-57. Miller punctuated it from a halfcourt set by driving in for an uncontested layup. Phanord nailed a 3-pointer from the left wing to start a 13-6 flurry that included 3s from Fonville and backup Jeff Holland, and CUA went into the final 3:31 trailing 77-70.
The Cards, who won on the Mariners' home floor, 76-66 on Jan. 11, would get no closer.
CUA will host Juniata College (12-7, 3-5) on Wednesday at 7 p.m.