11/18/10 — MOC -- Pickle Classic

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MOC -- Pickle Classic

By Rudy Coggins
Published in Sports on November 18, 2010 1:47 PM

MOUNT OLIVE -- Steady improvement.

Mount Olive College head men's basketball coach Joey Higginbotham and his staff have employed that mantra this season. They're grooming a young and inexperienced team for the rigors of Conference Carolinas play, and the next challenge lies ahead Friday.

The Trojans play host to the 45th annual Pickle Classic inside Kornegay Arena. In-state members Mars Hill and Chowan University tip off the two-day event at 5 p.m. Mount Olive (1-0 overall) faces Southeast Region foe North Georgia in the nightcap.

On Saturday, Chowan faces North Georgia at 5 p.m. The Trojans square off against Mars Hill in the final game.

Game-day tickets are $10.

"It's going to be a challenging weekend for us," said Higginbotham. "We have to continue to make strides, get better not only every game, but every day ... do the little things.

"Hopefully, we can play some good basketball and see how things go."

Mount Olive won seven straight Classic championships from 2000-06, but tournament organizers switched to a round-robin format in 2007. The Classic began in 1966 when MOC was a junior college.

Peach Belt Conference member North Georgia is making its first-ever appearance in the Classic. Mars Hill participated a year ago, while Chowan returns to the Classic for the first time since 2006.

"All those teams were right there on the edge looking in, but left out of the (NCAA) regionals (last year)," said Higginbotham. "North Georgia is going to be a physical team, probably the biggest team here. Mars Hill likes to push it up and down, and Chowan has a new coach."

North Georgia has three players, all transfers, averaging in double figures. Six-foot-3, 210-pound guard Carl Taylor, who started his collegiate career at Morehead State, leads the Saints with 18 points an outing.

Junior forward Elijah Smith, who played at Louisburg JC, is knocking down 11 points a game. Six-foot-11 junior George Jgerenaia, from Pensacola State JC, scores 15 a game.

The Saints are 1-1.

Chowan returns seven players off last year's team that recorded 18 victories, but just two of its top five scorers overall.

Mark Brown, who was named to the All-Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association preseason team, pumps in about 14 points game. Brown led the Hawks in scoring on eight occasions a year ago.

Senior guard Charles Rhodes is back after tallying 8.1 points per game in 2009-10.

Mars Hill has three returners back, including All-South Atlantic Conference preseason selection Dion Malachi. The 6-6, 210-pound senior forward averaged 14 points and seven rebounds a year ago for the Lions, who are picked to finish seventh in the SAC this season.

Also back are junior forward Dallas Johnson and Sudanese national team member Steven Gatkuoth.

The Trojans opened their season with a 63-59 triumph over SAC member Lenoir-Rhyne on Monday. Higginbotham's charges grinded out the victory after nearly squandering a 12-point lead.

"They're grasping things, not as quick as we like, but they're getting it," said Higginbotham. "I was impressed with the grit. We've pulled the reins in a little bit because we're inexperienced. It's going to be a slower team (that) has to execute in the half court.

"We have to pick and choose when we can get the easy bucket in transition. We have to execute on the defensive end, too. It's a different pace from past years."