Above photo by Luke Zayas/True To The Cru
BELTON, Texas- If UMHB head coach Clif Carroll had any doubts about his team’s defensive abilities, those were put to rest Saturday afternoon.
In a 94-59 rout of Howard Payne, the Cru defense held the Yellow Jackets to just 25 first-half points, forcing 18 turnovers and tallying 25 steals. The victory moved the Cru to 12-1 on the year, and put them tied with Hardin-Simmons for the conference lead.
“We stumbled before Christmas and lost at Hardin-Simmons where we didn’t play well,” Carroll said. “Hardin-Simmons has been playing good basketball, and they finally took a loss this week. So now we’re back on top of the standings and we control our own destiny. All we have to do is win now.”
Though Howard Payne was no offensive power, shooting a mere 36.7 percent from the field entering the game, holding an opponent to the numbers UMHB did is especially notable. The Crusaders’ defensive prowess was critical in their 26-0 scoring run midway through the first half that essentially earned them the win then and there.
“We’ve been challenging these guys all year to play good defense,” Carroll said postgame. “We knew that if we could stay in front of their dribble-drives and contest shots, that we could have a special day defensively.”
For the majority of the first half, HPU struggled to get open looks, and when they did, very few resulted in points. But the Yellow Jackets did open the game by taking a 9-5 lead, before the Crusaders found their rhythm and raced away from the opposition, playing near-perfect basketball for a 10-minute stretch, from the 17:00 mark to the 7:00 mark.
The 26-0 run was sparked by a three-pointer from Gibson Hearne with just under 17 minutes to play, and soon the Crusaders were connecting from nearly everywhere on the floor. Nathan Stolz scored five straight points, and minutes later, freshman sharpshooter Braedyn Dawes swished home consecutive threes, which gave UMHB its first 20-plus point advantage, 21-9.
“If we’re making threes, we’re going to be really hard to guard,” Carroll noted.
His team took a 47-25 lead into halftime, and posted exactly the same number of points in the second half, 47, widening the margin to 38 points with six minutes remaining on Frederick Shield’s jumper in the paint. HPU’s defense struggled in slowing the UMHB offense, but
“We know we can play defense, it’s just a matter of when we want to get stops,” sophomore forward Luke Feely said postgame.
Feely tallied 12 points in Saturday’s win, and Josiah Johnson (15 points), Dawes (13 points), Hammond (11 points), and Stolz (10 points) all scored in double figures. Feely was also the Cru’s leading rebounder, with eight boards.
“I try to do all the dirty work; the things that go unnoticed on the stat sheet,” Feely said. “I try to help the team in whatever way possible.”
Johnson’s 15 points were well below his season average of 27.5 entering the game, but he also dished out four assists, and Carroll said postgame that Johnson has been critical in getting the rest of the team more involved offensively.
“To see the unselfishness of Josiah over the last two games, to sacrifice trying to get shot attempts to really get everybody else involved, really proves that kid deserves to be in the conversation for National Player of the Year, First Team All-American, and whatever other accolades there are.
“There’s not a better player in the country than Josiah Johnson.”
UMHB continues conference play at ETBU on Thursday. Tip off is set for 7:30 p.m. CT.
“If you’re going to win the conference, you’ve got to win your home games,” Carroll said. “Getting on the road is going to be a good challenge this week. We should have a good chance to get three wins in the next two weeks.”
Riley Zayas is the managing editor of True To The Cru. He can be emailed at email@example.com.