ROSEMOUNT — Usually, it’s tough to get a team to perform at its best on back-to-back nights, especially early on in a season when kids are just starting to get their legs under them.
But if the Northwest Mohawks showed any ill effects from playing on two consecutive evenings, it was certainly hard to tell considering how energized the unit was as a whole.
Kyle Leslie’s 23 points and the two-way play of Leslie and Hunter Berry, along with a quick backcourt headed by Mason Campbell and Evan Throckmorton, were vital for Northwest in its second victory in as many days to open up the 2017-18 season as the quartet led Northwest on an 18-0 run between the first and second quarters of play to claim a 51-32 over Clay — who also played its second affair in back-to-back days — on Saturday evening in Rosemount.
For Jason Smith, it was an impressive victory that certainly has the head coach feeling like his 2-0 Mohawks understand what it takes to get the job done.
“It was definitely a team victory,” Smith said. “We got Kyle going early, and he had a great night. It was definitely a team effort. We played really good helpside defense and we controlled the boards. We had some silly turnovers early that hindered us a little bit, and we missed some bunnies early, but after we got through that, we played really hard.”
As for Adam Betten, the struggles of replacing three 1,000-point scorers (Cole Gilliland, Nate Hinze, Cameron King) and two of the best energy guys in the SOC regardless of division (Brody Riffe, Anthony Williams) were evident, but to be expected from a young Clay team that is still finding its footing in the program’s second affair with an entirely new lineup — with the exception of Caleb Cline — out on the floor.
“It’s a learning process,” Betten said. “These sophomores and juniors will have to step up (and fill those voids). I’ve got one guy back who played quality minutes (Caleb Cline), and the rest of these guys are new. But they’re playing so hard. I don’t doubt any of their efforts one bit because they play extremely hard. Hat’s off to Northwest. They’re extremely well-coached. (Jason) Smith does a great job.”
After scoring the opening basket of the contest on a 12-foot jumpshot by Tyler Hobbs, the Mohawks, behind the relentless energy of Campbell up top and Berry and Leslie down on the low block, played near-perfect basketball as Northwest scored each of the next 18 points on the back of the low-post duo, who scored 14 of the Mohawks’ 18 points by simply muscling their way into excellent low-post position. Berry, on his own, collected two finishes through contact en route to a nine-point outing, while Leslie — who added a steal and a block in the first quarter alone — obtained seven points in the opening frame alone en route to the masterful 23-point outing.
“We put Hunter on the best player on the opposite side of the floor every game,” Smith said. “He’s our lockdown defender. I don’t care how tall a guy is, we’re going to put Hunter on him. He never complains about it. He just works his butt off. He did outstanding. I don’t know his numbers tonight, but I know that he played an outstanding game defensively. Kyle is what gets us going. We got him going early, and defensively, he was there. He played really hard and didn’t get into deep foul trouble, so we kept him in there. We were going to far as the big fella could stand.”
“They’re smart,” Betten said. “They move their bodies around well. Leslie’s a great player. He’s left-handed, puts things in very well. Hat’s off to him. He did a great job tonight. He got the ball where he wanted to, and he finished. Hat’s off to Northwest. They played a great basketball game.”
The result? An 18-2 advantage for Northwest, who kept Clay from scoring for a nine-minute, seven-second span during the first half of play.
“We wanted to set the tempo early,” Smith said. “We wanted to really set the tone, and I believe that we did that (on Saturday evening). We wanted to get it going early and put our stamp on the game right away. We did that tonight. They played really hard tonight and showed that they weren’t going to have a hangover from last night. They came in and played outstanding.”
As the low-post duo continued to have their way down low, Campbell and Throckmorton began to get rolling at the top of the Northwest attack. The duo used their quickness and deft ballhandling abilities to score six of Northwest’s last eight points, which led to a 26-8 halftime advantage for the Mohawks.
“Mason is one of the best guards in the SOC,” Smith said. “I can’t say enough about him. I’ve enjoyed coaching him, and have been lucky to have him for four years now. He works his butt off and does everything that I ask him to do. The press doesn’t bother me too much because I’ve got great ballhandlers with Mason, Evan — who does a great job off of the bench — and Hunter. When it comes to the press, I’m not worried about that. We’ve got good guys that can handle it.”
In the second half of play, the Clay offensive attack started to come alive thanks to the play of Reece Whitley, who sparked the Panthers with a pair of treys. Whitley ultimately finished the affair with a team-high 12 points behind three long-distance connections, while Mason Newton and Caleb Cline added strong pressure up top to allow Clay to cut the Northwest lead to a 38-20 margin at one point.
“Reece and Mason aren’t afraid to drive into the lane and take contact,” Betten said. “They‘re showing extremely good signs right now as far as driving and finishing are concerned. “Mason does exactly what I ask him to do. He gives me everything he’s got. So does Caleb. They put pressure (on opposing backcourts) defensively.”
The inside-outside combo of Campbell and Leslie, however, proved to be too strong for Clay to overcome. In a five-minute stretch, the duo scored 10 of Northwest’s 12 points to allow the Mohawks to open the lead back up to a 44-22 cushion, with Campbell fittingly dropping in a beautiful low-post entry feed to Leslie over the top after recognizing that the 6-4 senior was being fronted by a Clay defender to cap the run off. Timmy Emmons and Braden Borens capped the game off with excellent minutes — the latter knocking down an open trey — to bring the score to its final margin.
“I’m very proud of all of the guys,” Smith said. “A lot of those guys are first-year varsity players as sophomores or juniors. Timmy Emmons played really well off of the bench. He does an outstanding job. He’s one of those energy guys that goes in there, tries to get every rebound, and busts his butt defensively. Braden Borens is a great shooter and is playing really well. The future’s really bright. We’ve got a lot of seniors and a lot of great leadership that really trickles down to the younger kids, who are really good and are embracing their roles. It’s really exciting.”
With the victory, Northwest moved to 2-0 on the season, having also defeated New Boston by a 64-58 count the night before. The Mohawks will start SOC II action with a bout against Minford on Tuesday evening.
And while Smith is excited about the 2-0 start, the veteran coach knows that a new focus will be required of his guys starting Monday afternoon.
“Come Monday, that’s over with,” Smith said. “We’ve got to have a great day of practice, because we start SOC II play on Tuesday. We’ve got Minford coming in, who had a big win (on Friday against North Adams). It’ll be a really good contest. I believe we’ve got a good shot. I’m excited and I can’t wait to see it.”
As for Clay, the Panthers — who also suffered a setback to Paint Valley, 58-41, on Friday evening — will take to the road to face East in what will be the SOC I opener for both clubs.
“We’ve got to step up,” Betten said. “We had two tough Division III opponents (in Paint Valley and Northwest) to start the season, and we start conference play on Tuesday with East, which is always going to provide a great atmosphere for high school basketball. We’ve just got to take the season one game at a time, and hopefully, we’ll get better each and every day.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT