MORRIS — In a game in which the two teams combined for 25 points in the first half, it’s no surprise that defense was the name of the game Friday night in Morris’ 41-26 Interstate Eight Conference win over Ottawa.
Both teams struggled to put the ball in the basket in the first half, as Ottawa led 7-5 at the end of the first quarter and 13-12 at halftime.
After halftime, though, it was a bit of a different story.
Morris (14-13, 5-4) wanted to speed up the pace of the game, so they amped up the pressure with their 1-3-1 defense. With 6-4 junior Jack Wheeler, a University of Illinois baseball recruit, manning the point, senior guard Caston Norris along the baseline and seniors AJ Zweeres, Caleb Stage and Joey Vinachi in the middle, Morris forced Ottawa into seven turnovers in the second quarter, most coming in the first few minutes.
That was enough time for Morris to get into its transition game, and Wheeler was the beneficiary. On multiple occasions, Morris had numbers on a fast break and kicked it out to Wheeler behind the 3-point line. Wheeler, who did not score in the first half, hit three 3-pointers in the third quarter and two more in the fourth, finishing with a game-high 19 points.
“Us being able to push the ball in transition was a big key,” Wheeler said. “We kind of let Ottawa play at their pace in the first half. Then we cranked up the pressure in the second half and got some turnovers, which led to some easy baskets for us. Me, AJ and Joey at the top didn’t want to let the ball get down low to [Ottawa’s 6-6 Cooper] Knoll, so we put more pressure on their guards.
“As long as we are playing good defense, we feel like we have a chance to win. Maybe we only scored 41 points, but we only gave up 26. Ottawa is a good team, so to hold them to 26 points is pretty good.”
Ottawa coach Mark Cooper, who remains tied atop the all-time Pirate win list with Dean Riley at 332 wins, cited Morris’ transition game as the determining factor.
“We struggled offensively all night, but give credit to Morris on their senior night,” Cooper said. “Wheeler’s length at the top of the zone is a problem, they got some easy baskets in transition and Wheeler got hot.
“When we were able to get into a halfcourt defense, we were OK. But, we didn’t shoot the ball well even when we did get good shots.”
Wheeler hit a 3-pointer to open the second half and give Morris its first lead at 15-13 before Zweeres scored on a driving layup to make it 17-13. Knoll (team-high 12 points) hit a 3-pointer to pull Ottawa (11-13, 3-6) to within 17-16, but that was as close as the Pirates got.
Morris responded with a 10-0 run for a 27-16 lead. Knoll ended the spurt with a pair of free throws, but Morris got another 3-pointer from Wheeler and a basket by Norris, who had three steals in the 10-0 run, to take a 32-19 lead into the fourth.
“We started pressuring more in our 1-3-1 in the second half,” Norris said. “We picked them up when they got past half-court and we were able to deflect some passes. The defense really got us going. We were getting hands on passes, getting loose balls and pushing the ball up the floor.
“When we get a chance, we like to run. We have a lot of athletes that can get up and down the floor quick.”
Morris’ starting five of Norris, Charlie Wright, Vinachi, Riley Ahearn and Stage, who led all players with nine rebounds, was not the regular starting lineup. But, on senior night, coach Joe Blumberg started all seniors, and AJ Zweeres, another senior, volunteered to give up his starting spot so another senior could get a start. That unit played the first six minutes of the first quarter and the game was tied when they left.
“The guys who started did a great job,” Blumberg said. “They kept things tight.
“We played at Ottawa’s pace in the first half. In the second half, we wanted to pressure and speed the game up. Jack, AJ and Joey Vinachi did a great job up top and our bottom guys - Stage and Norris - did, too. We had a much better flow in the second half and were able to get guys open. Our guys did a good job of finding the open guy. A lot of times, we are happy to slow the game down and play in the 40s. But, this team is better when they get out and run, so we picked up the pressure on defense.”