by TIM GORDON
Can a defensive battle be exciting? In a sporting ecosystem that places a value on offense, is there any place left for defense? More and more, the answer seems to be “no.”
Consider the NBA with their ever-changing standards—shortened shot clocks, defensive rules changed, shortened length of the three-point shot—in search of higher scores and more excitement. Even such enterprises as college football have converted to the Gospel of Big Scores. You need only look to last Monday’s College Football Championship game for an example as Alabama, a program once known for their stifling defense, hung fifty-two on Ohio State—who still scored a respectable twenty-four points!
What is the sports world coming to? Is there anyone who is still moved by outstanding defense?
Last Tuesday’s basketball game between the Springstead Eagles and the Nature Coast Sharks seemed to prove that there is. Even though both teams have shown they know how to put up big numbers—Nature Coast was averaging over fifty points per game and Springstead was averaging nearly seventy—they both came into the gym on Tuesday seemingly intent on shutting the other team down entirely.
So, did this epic slugfest somehow lack excitement since its final score saw Nature Coast edge out the home team, Springstead by a comparatively meager total of 40-37? No. There was plenty of excitement.
The tone was set early when Coach Pisarcik showed everyone in the building what they could expect all night from the Nature Coast Sharks—they were going to move the ball and attack the hoop. That message came in the form of the first two points of the game—scored by Shark’s senior center, Anthony Thrower Jr. A dizzying of quick passes around the perimeter were followed by a well-placed inlet pass to Thrower, who made a strong move to the hoop for a first-possession score.
Springstead would tighten up on Mr. Thrower, who led his team with eleven points.
This was not a game where any one team or player dominated. It would take on the feel of a title match between a couple of heavyweight boxers—each taking turns to throw haymakers at the other.
Nature Coast came out fast, and I mean fast. They were sprinting through their offensive sets and absolutely flying around on defense. They ended the first quarter with a 13-9 lead, but their aggressiveness had also gotten them in foul trouble—Springstead would be “in the bonus” very early in the second quarter.
Coach McGarry’s Eagles would push hard to capitalize on the Sharks’ foul troubles. Powered by points from five different scorers, Springstead would outscore Nature Coast in the second frame 16-9 to carry a 25-22 lead into halftime.
The third quarter was more of the same as it saw Saquan Carswell pitch in a second straight five-point quarter (he finished with a game-high twelve points). The Eagles outscored the Sharks 9-6 in the third.
Mathematicians will be quick to point out two things. First, the fourth quarter was going to begin with Nature Coast in an eight-point hole. Second, there seemed to be a trend materializing, here, and the Sharks were on the wrong end of it.
In the words of ESPN commentator, Lee Corso, “Not so fast, my friend.” Nature Coast may have been backed up on the ropes, but it was this heavyweight’s turn to throw a few big punches.
The Nature Coast Sharks were no longer flying all over the court. The troubles with fouls they had in the first quarter were long gone. They were fast, but not out of control. They were backed up, but not out of the game. They had been standing here, toe-to-toe with Springstead’s offensive juggernaut and Nature Coast had taken the best the Eagles had to throw at them.
Whatever Coach Pisarcik said to his boys at the start of the final frame, they came out like a team obsessed. It was their turn and there was no way they were walking off of the court without a victory.
The Sharks slowly, but steadily chipped away at the Eagles’ lead throughout the fourth quarter. All the while, they crushed the potent Springstead offense—allowing only 3 points in the closing period. Nature Coast scratched and clawed their way back up the scoreboard until, finally, they were able to reobtain the lead.
With fewer than ten seconds remaining on the clock, the Sharks clinging to a lead of just one point, the Eagles hoisted an errant shot and big 24 for Nature Coast, Anthony Thrower Jr., secured what was the biggest rebound of the game.
Springstead was forced to foul with a scant 3.9 seconds on the clock. Thrower would miss the ensuing free throw and Springstead would end up possessing the ball twice more in that short amount of time. But, alas, they would not be able to get the ball back onto their own side of the court—much less score. Nature Coast would go on to add two more successful free throws—widening the score to 40-37 with 0.4 seconds to play.
The Eagles called a timeout and got one last chance at a miracle shot to force overtime, but it was not meant to be on this night.
After the game, Coach Pisarcik acknowledged that this is a big county rivalry that both teams always mark on their calendars. “We knew it was gonna be tough, but we played Nature Coast basketball. We are happy with the outcome…. We’re glad that the ball bounced in our favor today.” He added, “I like how our team came together. (Springstead) made a little bit of a run, got up seven or eight and then we battled right back. So, I’m really proud of the guys and how they handled it.”
Some of the greatest lessons in sport are learned in the closest of games. Hardships conquered help you grow. Ill fortune helps you learn lessons. On this night the players on both teams gained some valuable wisdom and they matured just a little bit by facing this adversity head-on.
The good news, here, is for the fans. These heavyweight fighters will get another crack at each other on February 4. Now, go back to your corners and get ready to come back out and throw some more haymakers.