Three straight losses can wear on a team — especially one that is young and relatively inexperienced at the varsity level.
But the Indian River Indians varsity basketball team rallied behind two strong practices following a disappointing 60-43 opening-round loss to James M. Bennett at the Daily Times Mason-Dixon Cup in Salisbury and overwhelmed Mardela High School 79-55 in the consolation game for the team’s biggest victory of the season.
“As a team, this was a game we needed badly,” IRHS head coach Pat Kelly said. “We’ve been in every game but we hadn’t really prepared to succeed (thus far).”
“But I thought we ran and had a couple of good days of practice before we had to play again,” head coach Pat Kelly said, “and it was encouraging to see them come out and play the way they did.”
In fact, Kelly filled in as the 10th man in both practices to give his team a look for their upcoming game, and his players responded positively.
“Coach Kelly was hard on us in practice to step our game up because we played sloppy (against James M. Bennett) and he was aggravated because he knows that we’re a better team than what we showed,” freshman guard Deshawn Godwin said. “We worked hard in practice the last two practices, and it made (the game) a lot easier. And we brought it out onto the court (against Mardela).”
“We had to find ways to close out Mardela’s outside shooting, but we’re a young team with a lot of speed and we used our speed to our advantage,” Godwin added.
Mardela’s full-court press to start the game caused two quick turnovers and forced Kelly to take an early timeout to readjust, which seemed to work because Indian River cut through the press like a hot knife through butter for the rest of the game. That resulted in easy baskets or numbers situations of which the Indians also took advantage.
Freshman forward Montre Andrews benefited the most from the adjustment and had his best game of the season, scoring 19 points — 10 of which were scored while Mardela was caught out of position in its defensive press. It was his second start since starting center Jeremy Purnell went down with a broken pinky a day before the James M. Bennett game.
Kelly opted to bench senior guard Michael Hooper in favor of a taller, more versatile, target in senior forward Drew Gibbons. He combined with sophomore guard Jamar Manuel to break the press, and the adjustment worked.
“Drew is a good guy to have because he can push the ball and make the pass,” Kelly said. “He can see over the defense and throw a pass down court when you need to and has some special skills for a player of his height and size.”
“He takes off the pressure from other players because he can run the point,” Kelly added.
“We started with Michael (Hooper) and, if Mardela would’ve sat in a half-court defense, then we would’ve stayed with him. But they started pressing us, so we had to get Jamar in there to make some things happen,” Kelly said.
Hooper scored his first points of the season on a three-pointer during the loss to the Clippers in their opening-round, in limited action during the holiday tournament, but he acknowledged that he would have to do more than just shoot to play.
“You have to be able to do everything,” Kelly said.
Shooting is something Mardela relied on and they lost the game because of it. They shot 38 percent from the field, in part because they settled for outside jumpers, where they hit only 9 of 25 in the game. Junior guard Charles Fontaine turned up the heat after being benched in the first half for disciplinary reasons and scored 19 second-half points. That included making three three-pointers.
Indian River, on the other hand, had much better shot selection.
Even though they yielded sub-40 percent field goal percentages in three of four quarters (33, 37 and 38 percent) before making 71 percent of their third-quarter shots (10 of 14), Indian River was still effective because the shots they did take put them in a position to score.
Indian River routinely took the ball to the hoop and, even if they didn’t make the basket, Mardela was forced to contest the shots. That ultimately gave the Indians a ton of free-throw attempts.
With this formula in place, Indian River held a 19-point lead at halftime and saw it swell to 22 points heading into the fourth quarter.
Senior guard Preston Irving led the team with 22 points and 11 rebounds, but his most valuable contribution came at the free-throw line, where he hit 10 of 14. Indian River hit 26 of 36 from the charity stripe as a team, compared to 8 of 14 for Mardela.
“You can’t win games without them,” Irving said. “The pressure was on me and it was my time to step up.”
Indian River carried over that momentum to the defensive side of the court, where they hawked Mardela ball-handlers into committing 25 turnovers because of careless footwork and double-dribbles.
“Defensively, I thought we did a very good job in the first half,” Kelly said. “Godwin and Manuel were able to get some deflections. But in the second half we looked like we were sleepwalking.”
“We didn’t finish out, which leaves room for improvement,” Kelly said. “We need to get more focused to finish out games, because from here on out is no picnic.”
Indian River will return from the Christmas vacation with a 3-4 record and play a tough stretch versus Henlopen South contenders Delmar, Woodbridge and Smyrna before playing the Henlopen North.
Indian River will play Woodbridge at home on Saturday, Jan. 6, at 2:15 p.m.