Over the last several seasons, Greg Tonagel has coached several tremendous defensive teams, winning three national championships in the process.
But as the 2019-2020 campaign progresses, this version of the IWU Wildcats has a chance to be one of the best defensive units Tonagel has ever coached, and their play on that end of the floor has played a major part in their success.
Last Tuesday night at the Luckey Arena, that defensive prowess, combined with a strong performance from senior point guard Tanner Rubio, proved to the difference, as the Wildcats built an early lead and never relinquished it in a 97-66 triumph over the Huntington Foresters.
The Wildcats played a complete game on both ends of the floor. They shot the ball well all evening, finishing 40-of-67 (59.7 percent) from the field, which included a 19-of-31 mark in the second half.
Defensively, the Wildcats clamped down on Konnor Platt and the Huntington offense, holding them to just 22-of-53 shooting (41.5 percent) and seven-of-29 (28 percent) from the perimeter.
“Our defense has been evolving through the year,” IWU Head Coach Greg Tonagel said. “We’ve been challenging our guys to tighten it up, and I feel like in the last month we’ve been able to tighten things up. We are more connected than we were back in November and December.”
Rubio played one of his best games as a Wildcat, scoring 21 points on eight-of-11 shooting, including five-of-six from beyond the arc.
With each passing game, it is clear that Rubio is becoming more comfortable in the starting point guard role, and Tuesday’s game was another positive step forward for the senior transfer from Jacksonville University.
“That just comes from the coaches and the team believing in me,” Rubio said. “I’m so thankful to God that I’m here. I’m just out there to do my job.”
IWU wasted no time in the first half, hitting five of their first six shots and racing out to an 11-2 lead. Just over two minutes later, that advantage increased to 18-4 after two Spencer Piercefield threes and a Tim Adetukasi field goal.
Huntington used a 10-5 run of their own to cut IWU’s lead to nine at 23-14, but that would be as close as the Foresters would get. A basket from Seth Maxwell, followed by a putback from Kyle Mangas, put the Wildcats up by double-digits, and their lead did not dip below 11 the rest of the way.
Rubio started to find his offensive groove in the second half of the opening stanza. From the 10:12 to the 7:35 mark, he scored 10 points and added two more triples in the final 5:40 of the first half to help give IWU a 51-31 lead at the halftime break.
“Tanner is becoming our third scoring option,” Tonagel said. “It just takes time to fit in…but now, he is finding [his niche.]”
Of his 21 points, 18 came in the opening 20 minutes.
“I’m just thankful for my teammates getting me the ball and staying within the offense,” Rubio said. “I’m just happy it finally came. I’ve been in the gym trying to get better. I’ve been struggling all season, especially in conference [play], but my teammates and coaches continue to believe in me and pour into me. I’m just super thankful. Tonight was no accident.”
Keeping intensity and focus after building a double-digit first half lead is tough for many teams, even the top programs.
But instead of resting on their laurels, the Wildcats came out in the second half with renewed vigor, and their defense helped to put the game away.
In the opening 5:48, IWU outscored the Foresters 15-0, as Mangas and Maxwell combined for nine points and the Wildcats’ defense forced five turnovers.
Huntington did not score their first points until the 14:12 mark and did not knock down their first field goal until there was 12:35 left to play.
“What I am most proud of is the way they came out in the second half,” Tonagel said. “Up 20, we go on a 15-0 run. That’s hard to do. They were locked in.”
IWU cruised through the rest of the contest, leading by as many as 37 points before settling for the 31-point triumph.
While Huntington was missing three of their first four players, Platt, their leading scorer, was held to just 15 points on four-of-11 shooting and one-of-seven from the perimeter.
Freshman guard Noah Smith, who was the primary defender on Platt, was sensational, keeping the Huntington star under wraps the entire game.
“It all starts with Noah,” Rubio said. “I think it’s no secret that he can guard anyone in the country. His energy gives everyone the confidence to guard. We believe in him to guard the best player every single night, and that energy is contagious for all of us.”
“We knew Noah was a good player and a good defender. He’s better than I thought,” Tonagel added. “He’s the best defender in our league right now. He comes to play every single day.”
Along with Rubio’s 21-point performance, Maxwell and Mangas also finished in double figures. Maxwell collected 13 points and six rebounds, while Mangas added 15 points, four rebounds, and five assists.