- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 17, 2002

At the beginning of this season, Catholic University basketball coach Mike Lonergan fretted about whether his freshman point guard and two new starters would hold up.

Lonergan knew that each foe his team faced would be geared up to knock off the Division III defending national champion. But except for a season-opening loss, Catholic has resumed where it left off last season and is building momentum.

Before last night's game at Mary Washington, Catholic was 13-1, ranked No.1 in one major poll and poised to make another run at the Capital Athletic Conference crown and a berth in the NCAA tournament. Including 16 straight at the end of last season, the Cardinals have won 29 of their last 30 games.

"We're much better than I expected," Lonergan said. "We're playing as well as any team I've had."

Catholic, ranked No.1 by Basketball America, has continued a program tradition of finishing strong. The Cardinals have trailed at halftime in five games, but the players say they sometimes are forced to start slowly because opposing teams come out motivated to beat them. Gradually, as the game progresses, the Catholic players get in the flow of the game and assert themselves.

Junior center Matt Hilleary is an example. He often starts slowly, but at a fluid 6 feet, 6 inches, Hilleary can take defenders from the dribble as well as from the block and can dominate in stretches. Before last night's game, he was averaging 17.4 points and 10 rebounds despite playing fewer than 25 minutes.

But maybe the most vital cog for the Cardinals is point guard Bobby Henning. A freshman, Henning has pacified Lonergan's apprehension about inexperienced backcourt with consistent play. He ranks second in Division III among freshmen in assists per game, and Lonergan also lauds his defensive play.

First-year starters Kevin Wise and Craig Avallone have filled their roles, too Wise has scored in double figures in all but one game (he had nine points in that one), and Avallone has had 10 or more points in all but three. They stand second and third, respectively, on the team in scoring at 14.0 and 13.3 points per game.

"The guys have great team chemistry," Lonergan said. "We seem to have that air of confidence we had last year."

Catholic's toughest remaining conference challenges should come in two games against Marymount and a home date against York. The CAC tournament winner gets an automatic entry into the NCAAs. Lonergan, however, wants Catholic to finish strong and stay in the running for one of the few at-large bids. The way the Cardinals are going, they'll get to the tournament one way or another.

"At times, it seems when things are clicking, it can't get any better," Henning said.

Bear hug

Providing more proof that Bob Huggins is wrapped tighter than a cheap cigar, the Cincinnati coach has banned a reporter from covering the team's next two games after the Cincinnati Post ran a story by the journalist in which Huggins ripped local fans for the team's lagging attendance.

The No.7 Bearcats are 15-1 but have not sold out the 13,176-seat Shoemaker Center in eight games this season. According to the story, Huggins engaged in a profanity-laced tirade against the school's fans to reporter Jason Williams. But after the Post published the story, Huggins verbally abused Williams, banned him from the next two games and then attempted to do some damage control on his weekly radio show.

"I know what this town is capable of doing and certainly our fan base is capable of doing," said Huggins, trying to put a softer spin on the attendance issue. "But in no way, shape or form have I ever said or meant anything detrimental to our fans."

Magic Man

After averaging just 8.4 points during UCLA's 2-3 start this season, disheartened senior forward Matt Barnes asked Magic Johnson for help with his ailing game. Johnson instructed Barnes to go back and review tapes of his play from last season and slightly altered his jumper.

In the nine games since his consultation with Johnson, Barnes has averaged 17.1 points and the Bruins are 8-1. Last week Barnes was named Pac-10 player of the week for the first time in his career after scoring 61 points and making 10 of his 15 attempts from 3-point range.

"The coaches didn't know what was wrong, my family didn't know, I didn't know," Barnes said. "I credit Magic."

Staff writer Barker Davis contributed to this report.

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