By Steve Wilaj
In the first half against Niles McKinley on Friday night, Poland forced nine turnovers and allowed just 15 points, earning the tag of a “great” defensive first 16 minutes from head coach Ken Grisdale.
Believe it or not, the Bulldogs’ pressure was only getting started.
“Our defense really stepped up in the third quarter,” Grisdale said. “We thought if we could get them going and playing a little faster than they wanted to, defensively we could create some offensive situations for us.”
Behind that relentless defense and plenty of hot shooting, Poland cruised to a 72-44 victory against the Red Dragons.
“We had a nice little run there right at the beginning of the third quarter off of our press,” Grisdale said. “That kind of solidified that we were going to be OK.”
Poland led 25-15 at the break, but separated itself from Niles early in the third with its overwhelming full-court press to take a 45-31 lead into the fourth.
“We were getting the ball a little deep [in the corner] and we turned it over a number of times,” Niles head coach Ron Price said. “They’re big and have some length and that caused some problems.”
This was combined with some sharp shooting by Jared Burkert, who finished with a game-high 21 points. Burkert made five of seven shots from beyond the arc.
“Our defense in the second half was better — especially our hustle,” Burkert said. “Then my teammates found me when I was open.”
Burkert wasn’t the only Bulldog who shot it well. As a team, Poland (9-2, 4-1) shot 56 percent (27 of 48) from the field. Kyle Dixon had 15 points, Jake Wolfe had 11 and Austin Wilson added seven.
“They got hot in that second half,” Price said. “When they’re shooting the ball that well and get that hot — they missed some in the first half — they’re hard to beat.”
Meanwhile, it was just the opposite for the Red Dragons (5-6, 3-4), as they collectively shot 31 percent (16 of 51). James Tate paced Niles with 12 points.
“We got some shots and the ball didn’t go in,” Price said. “We think that our best shooting will be ahead of us.”
Another drastic difference in the stats was in the rebounding column. The Bulldogs outrebounded Niles, 34-11, as Wolfe led the way with 11 boards.
“That’s something we should do more often — not just against Niles,” Grisdale said. “We have length, so we should be able to clean the glass. We did a nice job the first game against them and a good job against them again tonight.”
Grisdale also wants his team to cut down on turnovers, which it has struggled with all season. The Bulldogs committed 16 more against Niles.
“When you get down into league championship-type games ... when you get into tournament situations, every possession is going to count,” Grisdale said. “You can’t have empty ones. So we have to get better at that.”