By ROB HAMILTON
In their attempts to keep pace with Centerburg in the Mid-Ohio Athletic Conference Blue Division race, every league win counts for the Highland boys.
That sense of urgency was on display early against Mount Gilead, as the Scots jumped out to a 12-2 lead after eight minutes of play on their way to winning 54-35. Head coach Matt Bradley noted that it all began with defense, as his team made it tough for the Indians to put points on the board with consistency.
“We defended for four full quarters tonight,” said the coach. “In the second half we did a better job on (Xavier) Harris. Everybody did their job defensively and contested well on their other guys. From a team standpoint, this was probably the best we’ve played all year.”
That defense looked its best early, as they held the Indians scoreless until Harris hit two foul shots with 30 seconds to go in the first. Meanwhile, the Scots got five points from Curtis Belcher and a three-pointer by Nate Hilborn to jump out to a double-digit lead.
“We struggled offensively tonight,” said Mount Gilead coach Tom Cooper. “Highland just played really good basketball. That’s a good team. We struggled to get a second and third scorer going. The thing that impressed me about Highland was that you could tell they were an experienced team that’s been through battles.”
The Scots continued to cruise through the opening stages of the second, leading by as many as 14 points after a Belcher three-pointer at the midway point of the period was quickly followed by a long-range shot by Ryan Burt. However, down 23-9 with three minutes to go in the half, the Indians got back-to-back threes of their own from Harris and Chris Godfrey. Godfrey’s shot, hit with 1:12 to go in the second quarter, counted as the first Indian points by a player other than Harris on the night.
Burt scored again for Highland, but Godfrey hit a shot from closer in to end the half with the Indians only trailing 25-17.
Mount Gilead then opened the third quarter getting a three-pointer by Michael Bland to get within five points at 25-20.
“In the first quarter, our goal was to go into halftime only down by seven and it was eight,” said Cooper. “We came out in the third and got a three, but they got some big shots.”
Hilborn hit the first of those, matching Bland’s three with one of his own. Byron Belcher then added two free throws and the lead was back to 10. After a Bland free throw cut it to 30-21, the Scots got a three from Burt and a basket by Jett Swetland to go up 35-21.
Bradley was happy with how many of his players got involved offensively, noting that his team has evolved as the season has progressed.
“I thought tonight was as unselfish as we’ve played all year,” he said. “We shared the ball really well tonight. At the beginning it was all Jett, but now, we’re evolving into a team with multiple weapons.”
He cited the play of Burt, Byron Belcher and Shane Carney as examples, adding, “With Jett and Curtis, we know they’ll score and get points, but I’m very pleased with how we’re playing as a team.”
Cooper noticed the same thing from his side of the court. “That’s what makes them tough to guard,” he noted. “They have a great scorer in Swetland and surround him with good shooters.”
The Indians got within a 39-28 margin by the end of the quarter thanks to a Deondre Cook three-pointer and closed within a 41-31 score early in the fourth thanks to three points by Harris, but could not get any closer in the contest.
The Scots finished the game by going on a 13-4 run where Swetland scored six, Curtis Belcher tallied four and Byron Belcher picked up three more. Swetland led the Scots with 15, 12 scored in the second half; while Curtis Belcher scored 14, Byron Belcher added nine and Burt finished with eight.
For the Indians, Harris scored 17, 12 over the first two periods, and Godfrey tallied nine.
“We don’t feel like we played very well, but all the credit goes to them (Highland),” stated Cooper.
After the game, Bradley pointed out the importance of winning games to not fall farther behind Centerburg, while also showing some skill at jinxing teams, as the Trojans would go on to drop their first Blue Division game of the season on Friday to Fredericktown.
“As far as we’re concerned, we’re not planning on Centerburg losing, so we have to keep pace and keep winning with great teamwork,” he said.
Rob Hamilton may be reached at 419-946-3010, ext. 204.