Above photo of Ty Prince by Olivia Champion/@byoliviarayn
BELTON, Texas- A win is a win, no matter the margin of victory. Especially once conference play rolls around. But UMHB head coach Clif Carroll was clear in his message postgame on Friday night. Defeating Ozarks by 20 points to open ASC action is notable, but this is far from where the Crusaders want to be.
“We just have to keep growing and getting better,” Carroll said following his team’s 87-67 win, which moved UMHB to 4-0. “That’s the great thing. We’re sitting here after a 20-point conference win talking about how much better we need to be.”
The Crusaders opened the game on a 13-3 run, playing near-perfect basketball over the first five minutes. Coming out of an early timeout at the 15:27 mark, UMHB’s Josiah Johnson connected on a three-pointer. On the ensuing possession, his teammate Ty Prince did the same thing, forcing Ozarks to call a timeout as the Cru took a 19-3 lead.
Much of that early offensive success, which included shooting 54 percent from the field and 56 percent from three-point range in the first half, was due to the Cru’s ability to break Ozarks’ 2-3 zone defense. The key to breaking a zone is getting the ball to the top of the paint, and that was something UMHB accomplished with ease, dribbling the ball very little.
“We were putting the zone in bad spots, and finding our playmakers in good spots,” Carroll said of the fast start. ”That’s why we shot over 50 percent from the field and from three in the first half. In the second half, it was the complete opposite. The ball started sticking. We started trying to force a square peg into a round hole.”
UMHB closed out the first 20 minutes on a 15-11 run, which was capped by Payton Brooks’ three-pointer with 10 seconds to play. That gave the Crusaders a 54-31 halftime advantage, and achieving victory appeared as a sure thing.
In the second half, the Crusaders held on for the win without much trouble, as the lead never slimmed to less than 12 points, but as Carroll noted, it was far from a half that lived up to expectations. UMHB was just 12-of-37 from the field over the final half, with a dismal 1-for-19 mark from beyond the arc.
“We had a lot of success with it in the first half,” Carroll said of the three-point shots.”But that was different. Those were all rhythm, and within our offense. The ball had touched several hands. In the second half, it was more one-pass, shoot a three.”
Ozarks outscored UMHB 36-33 in the second half, but the sizable first half lead, combined with a sound defensive effort, propelled the Cru to victory. Carroll’s squad won the rebounding battle 51-35, and forced 18 turnovers, all while limiting the Eagles to 18 points in the paint.
“The key was controlling the paint,” Carroll said of the defense. “We took away a lot of paint points. If you go back and look at the other three games where we gave up way too many points, it was a lot of paint points, and uncontested rim shots. Entering this game, we were allowing opponents to shoot 65 percent at the rim. That’s horrendous.”
Aiding in the defensive play was putting more pressure on the Ozarks ball handlers in the backcourt, something that Carroll has more freedom to put into action this season, considering the depth on the roster.
“We’ve started pressuring up the court a little more this year,” Carroll said. “Ozarks played a tough game last night [against Concordia]. We didn’t want to allow them to catch their breath bringing the ball up the floor. We wanted to contest that.”
Prince led the Cru with a team-high 22 points, recording his first triple-double of the year with 10 rebounds and 10 assists. Incredibly, all nine players who took the floor for UMHB tallied at least four points, with Johnson joining Prince in the double-digit scoring category, contributing 16 points.
While Johnson was second on the team in scoring, he was challenged in a big way by the Ozarks defense, who held the nation’s No. 2 scorer to a 5-for-19 shooting performance. Not to mention, he finished with four fouls, three of which were picked up in the first half.
“I’m not sure that we could’ve won this game last year,” Carroll said postgame. “Ozarks did a great job of guarding Josiah. They got him into foul trouble. When he was in the game, they stayed in front of him and made things difficult for him. It’s a testament to our depth. At some point our guys were going to have to step up and they did.”
Forward Sam Reaves posted a career-best nine-point showing, adding four rebounds along the way. And for the second consecutive game, Brooks connected on three three-point attempts, also finishing with nine points.
UMHB continues its conference schedule next week, heading to Abilene for a Thursday night matchup with McMurry. Tip-off is set for 7:30 p.m. at Kimbrell Arena.