“The lesser of two evils.”
That’s how Newton boys basketball coach Nick Wilkins described his team’s strategy when it came to defending the Little Hawkeye Conference top-ranked Grinnell Tigers. Wilkins’ team could either keep defense tight in the paint or focus on covering the outside shot.
“We came into tonight kind of picking the lesser of two evils,” Wilkins said. “Their posts are the best posts in the conference, (Eli) Duane and (Joe) Schmidt — those kids are really solid players. We knew we had to stay in the paint and close out. We knew we were going to give some open looks up, and that’s how we were going to play; it worked very well for us.”
In a game where Newton (2-6, 0-2) outscored Grinell (6-1, 4-0) during the second half of play, it was the first half — and first quarter, specifically — that made the difference in last night’s contest.
The Tigers jumped out to a quick 8-0 lead to open the game, aided by threes from Schmidt, and never looked back. While the Cards pulled within three points by the end of the first quarter, the Tigers’ lead would only increase.
“I think in the first quarter we came out slow and we’re trying to work through that,” said Wilkins. “For some reason, this year that’s happened two or three games in a row where we’ll be down eight or 10 points early and we’ve got to fight back.”
Fight back, they did, as the Cards found new life in the third period, bouncing back from a 26-16 deficit that divided the teams at the half. Buckets that had been easy for Grinnell all night, especially outside shots from beyond the arc, just weren’t falling. This gave Newton both the drive and the momentum to come within a promising four points with one quarter left to play, by a tally of 37-33.
Despite inside looks by senior Collin Reynolds and a late three by junior Chandler Sturtz, the Tigers held on for the Little Hawkeye Conference victory, 51-44.
“That was really the main difference tonight,” Wilkins said. “We spent all of our energy trying to get back in the game and couldn’t get over the hump.”
“If you look at free throws, that’s been a struggle with us before,” Wilkins added. “They shot more free throws than we did, and they had some of those 50-50 calls that went their way instead of our way and, you know, that happens, that’s the game of basketball. You’ve got to play through that, and that’s something that we’re learning.”
Newton finished with three players scoring in double digits, as sophomore Tyler Wood scored 12, senior Jesse Bates had 11 and Reynolds sank 14.
Despite the Cards having lost their last six in a row, Wilkins has seen improvement in his team moving forward into the season.
“I told the kids we’re in a good spot compared to where we were,” Wilkins added. “We were struggling before the first of the year and since then we’ve started to put things together.”
The Cardinals will face Oskaloosa (2-7, 0-4) on the road on Friday at 7:30 p.m.