The weekend almost got off to a hellish start, with a late schedule change pushing the start time of our first game from 1:30 PM on Saturday to 9:00 AM, which would have necessitated a 5:00 AM departure. Thankfully, Ken and Ebony were able to get the tournament to reschedule again, pushing us back to a much more reasonable 12:25. However, we still had a couple of players and our assistant coach get stuck in traffic just enough to arrive about five minutes into our first game. We were matched up against a team playing on one of their home courts, a very tall group (three kids were 6'6") that was able to really bother us with their length. Their starting center was the coach's son, and he did a phenomenal job of sealing his man on the block and getting the ball right where he wanted it throughout the first half, which led to easy buckets and some foul trouble for us inside. Offensively it took us awhile to shake off the rust from the three-hour drive, with a number of particularly ugly shots contributing to our low scoring efforts.
After going over denying the post at halftime, our "big" men went out and executed fairly well, keeping our opponents from entering the ball in the post but giving up a few more offensive rebounds on second chances (hey, they were a lot bigger than us). Our scoring touch never really showed up, so even though we held them to fourteen points after the intermission, we wound up falling 50-23. One parent counted twenty-two layup opportunities where we either missed the shot, got stripped/blocked on the way up, or were fouled and did not convert for a chance at an old-fashioned three-point play. Converting half of those (especially the eight unaffected by fouls, blocks, or steals) would have made the game much, much closer.
Our second game is when Kareem, our impossibly skinny center, finally started to realize what he can do when he plays more aggressively. On our second possession, with his man sagging off of him near the top of the key, he decided to take an eighteen-footer. Swish. The next time down, on the right wing, his defender didn't close out again. Swish. He scored six of our first eight points as the lone big man in an intentionally small lineup (we were, for a change, not facing a massive size disparity, and I was trying to keep more scorers on the floor), and that catapulted him to probably the single best individual performance in our season to date. In the end, he wound up with a double-double (seventeen and eleven), plus six blocks and a couple of steals, while four of the guards shuttling in and out around him also contributed on the offensive end. We were trailing by just a couple of points late, but three or four times in the final two minutes an opponent was able to get behind our full-court man-to-man defense and cherry-pick a layup, which led to the 57-50 final. Still, it was a terrific effort, especially with the ball, and I think really opened up some eyes to the possibilities of what we are capable of when we simply make more of the shots that we should be making.
In our final game on Sunday morning, we faced an athletic team from the Poconos that was a little bigger and stronger but not as deep, and we had a great back-and-forth first half capped by one of our guards, Jaquez, dribbling down the floor and knocking down a triple just before the buzzer to knot everything up at twenty-two apiece. But Northeast Spirit got seven points to start the second half (around four misses at the charity stripe from us) and never looked back on the way to a 57-37 win.
Even after a weekend during which we had our best individual and best team performance so far this season, we are still searching for that elusive first win. Other than the first game (when we were practically fresh out of our cars), we scored better than we have in the past. We were able to make some good defensive adjustments, particularly inside, but struggled to make others. I still believe that we are at our best as primarily a man-to-man team because it gives us our best chance to survive on the defensive glass, but we simply HAVE to be better at helping on drives and keeping the ball out of the paint; we always seem to have somebody face-guarding their man twenty-five feet from the ball, or at the very least not being in any position to help. And our transition defense needs to improve; our lapses there contributed in a big way to letting a comeback win slip away in that second game, and we rarely follow both of the two cardinal rules of transition defense.*
*1. Get back to the basket. 2. Stop the ball.
We are getting better little by little, but the speed of the progress has been frustrating, for players, coaches, and parents. It's obviously no fun to lose every game, and most of them by significant margins. Still, we all have to keep searching for ways to get better, and fix the problems that we have been having. We have our first crack at a non-Zero Gravity tournament this weekend out in Annapolis, so hopefully we can regroup and put enough of the pieces together to get a win or two and grow our confidence. Until next week!