A pretty reliable barometer of how well a team played defensively is to take a glance at the opposing team's field goal percentage — shots taken versus shots missed. On Thursday, however, in a Class 4A South Region quarterfinal matchup between the Henry A. Wise High School boys basketball team and visiting Laurel, it was the shots that the Spartans never had the chance to take that was most telling of the Pumas' defensive effort.
Twenty-one times the Spartans turned it over — that was the unofficial count by Laurel coach Torrence Oxendine — and on the vast majority of them, the Pumas turned those into points. Wise established a 41-16 lead by halftime and coasted from there, taking a comfortable 77-50 win at home.
“Twenty-one turnovers is a lot to beat Wise,” Oxendine said. “Wise is really, really good.”
Laurel is young, the guards especially, which sometimes leads to recklessness, or “growing pains,” as Oxendine called them. This was just one of those nights where the growing pains were a little sharper than most, and it happened to coincide with one of Wise's better defensive performances of the season. The combination, in the eyes of Wise's fans, created problems for Laurel.
“Our defense is our offense,” said Wise's Marquel Young, who finished with 10 points. “Our offense starts on our defense. Our energy on defense leads to our energy on offense. That's how we play.”
After Laurel took a 6-3 lead by making its first three baskets — although one was counted due to goaltending, a result of overzealous defense — the offense stalled. Wise then tied it up with a Young 3-pointer, which started a 13-4 run to end the quarter and the Pumas parlayed that into a 25-6 second quarter, all but finishing the game before the half was out.
“We made a lot of unforced turnovers ourselves, so we kind of took ourselves out in the first half by not taking care of the ball,” Oxendine said. “We had a lot of turnovers and we didn't close out well on the shooters. I don't know so much as it was great defense, more so as we made a lot of mistakes.”
The worst part for Laurel may have been that, even when the Spartans did manage to get a shot off, Micah Till was there to swat most of them away. There was no final tally on Till's blocks, but coach Rob Garner recalled five off the top of his head, and he was admittedly low-balling that number. The 6-foot-5 forward also finished with a game-high 19 points.
It seems almost trivial now, but Garner came in harboring a few concerns as to how his team would respond from a 15-day layoff between the Pumas' last regular season game (an 80-38 win over Oxon Hill) and Thursday's quarterfinal. The result was a complete recommitment to Wise basketball, with a particular emphasis on all things defense.
“When you've been out for a week and a half, you don't know what to expect,” Garner said. “We've picked it up, definitely, on the defensive end and that's been our focus and concentration, our defense and our rebounding and execution. Those have been our three points.”
With DuVal squeaking past Northwestern, the Pumas will match up on Tuesday with the only team that has really had their number all season. The Tigers took Wise down twice thus far, and nobody wearing a Wise uniform really seemed to know why, but as Garner would point out, the past two games mean nothing now.
“The only thing that matters is Tuesday,” the coach said. “DuVal's the team that we're going to play. We got to play DuVal and play them again and we'll be a different team than the last time we played them.”
Henry A. Wise 77, Laurel 50
Wise 16 25 19 17 — 77
Laurel 10 6 18 16 — 50
Wise (18-5; 15-4): Micah Till 19; Ahsante Shivers 14; Marquel Young 10; Lavonte Sanders 10; Justice Sneed 8; D.J. Nedab 7; Jaquille Magazine 4; Devin Moore 2; Jalen Sloan 2; Lorenzo Drummond 1.
Laurel (10-13; 6-12): Aaron Brown 17; Tai Marshall 11; Cailen Walker 7; Mamadou Ndiaye 6; Frank Williams 4; Devonte Cook 2; Paul Golder 2; David Burgess 1.