While the Mississinewa Indians are a proficient group on offense, the backbone of their program, and the key to their success over the last few seasons, has been their play on the defensive end of the floor.
While they did come away with a pair of wins over two top-10 ranked teams, the players and Head Coach James Reed were not satisfied with their defensive play across the first four games of the season.
Leading up to their CIC opener against Oak Hill on Friday night, the Indians took it upon themselves to rediscover their defensive mojo.
And they did just that.
The Indians stifled the Golden Eagles from the opening tip, forcing 13 turnovers, five in the first quarter, and setting the tone on both ends in a 58-39 triumph.
The 39 points allowed were the fewest given up by the Indians so far this season.
Additionally, the Indians held Oak Hill to just 16-of-44 (36 percent) shooting from the field, handing the Golden Eagles their first loss in the process.
“Before the game, our talk was about defense,” Reed said. “We put so much effort into our defense in practice. We put so much effort into our defense in a game. Yet, [teams] were putting numbers up on the board that we just can’t allow. Tonight, that was our focus. They were so focused and disciplined defensively. I thought we made strides tonight.”
“We pride ourselves on our defense,” Mississinewa center Tai McClung added. “We were trying to keep them under 40, and we did that.”
While the Mississinewa defense did their part in shutting down Oak Hill’s offense, McClung played his best game of the season, dominating the paint in all four quarters. With Tristan Hayes out for the season, the Golden Eagles lack size in the post, and McClung took full advantage, collecting a double-double with 21 points and 15 rebounds, seven on the offensive glass.
“Tai was just an absolute animal,” Reed said. “We have been waiting for that. I couldn’t be more excited with how he is playing right now.”
As a team, the Indians were aggressive on the glass, crashing the boards at both ends and outrebounding the Golden Eagles 30-22.
“Rebounding was weak the first few games,” McClung said. “So, we practiced rebounding, rebounding, and rebounding. Second chance points, we need those. And we always need defensive rebounds. Those win games.”
Mississinewa made their presence open defense felt early, forcing back-to-back turnovers on Oak Hill’s first two possessions and turning both of those giveaways into quick points, which allowed the Indians to take control of the contest. Of Oak Hill’s five giveaways in the opening quarter, four resulted in Mississinewa baskets as the Indians grabbed a 17-8 advantage after the first eight minutes – an advantage they would not relinquish.
“It’s one of those things where you can tell the kids that…we knew they were going to come out and put pressure on us and intimidate [us] a little bit with their defensive pressure, but it’s another thing to come out and experience it,” Oak Hill Head Coach Kevin Renbarger said. “Tonight was a hard lesson to learn. I’ll be pleased if we take steps forward and we learn from it.”
Colin Yoder increased Mississinewa’s lead to double digits early in the second quarter on a pair of free throws, and after Oak Hill senior Kian Hite briefly cut the lead back down to single digits, a triple from Landen Swanner ended any sort of momentum for the Golden Eagles, who never got within single digits again the rest of the night.
“He makes us so much better,” Reed said of Swanner. “He’s such a special player when he takes his opportunities.”
After taking a 34-19 lead at halftime, the Indians kept the pedal down in the second half. McClung continued his strong play in the post, scoring eight more points in the final two quarters, and the Indians held the Golden Eagles to seven-of-18 shooting after halftime.
“We controlled the game offensively and we controlled the game defensively,” Reed said. “If they continue to catch on to that, and as we go through the season…I think we can grow and really get to a place where we want to go.”
As a team, the Indians shot 22-of-43 (51.1 percent) from the floor and eight-of-19 (42.1 percent) from beyond the arc, continuing their staunch offensive production that has been evident throughout the early stages of the 2020-2021 season.
“They know when it is their time to shoot,” Reed said. “They are so confident right now. Every time really anybody on our team is shooting it, I think everybody in the gym just thinks it’s going in because they are using each other so well. Hopefully, we can continue that moving forward.”
Along with McClung’s 21 points, Swanner finished the game with 16 points, while Yoder added 11, including a pair of triples.
While it was a tough night for Oak Hill, one major positive was the play of Hite. After missing most of his junior year due to injury, the Golden Eagles’ senior guard left his mark on the floor, scoring a team-high 13 points, playing sound defense, and leading by example both on the court and on the bench. His presence provides a boost for a team full of youth and inexperience and will pay huge dividends down the road as the season progresses.
“We don’t have a lot of basketball experience on the floor, but Kian…[has] a lot of varsity experience on the floor in big games like this,” Renbarger said. “He is the only one that was not afraid of the moment, and it showed. He was comfortable at all times in doing what we needed to do.”
Caleb Kroll added eight points off the bench for Oak Hill, while Landon Biegel scored six.
Despite the loss, the Golden Eagles are a team who historically play their best basketball later in the season. For now, the plan is to use this game as a teaching tool and to continue to improve in all facets of their play going forward.
“That is a very, very good basketball team that has an opportunity to be an elite basketball team and quite frankly, we are probably not in a position yet to be ready for them,” Renbarger said. “We are hoping to make progress so we could be when we come back here in March.”