HOOPESTON — Without any player taller than 6-feet, 2-inches, Hoopeston Area coach Matt Colston knows his Cornjerkers have to play very good defense.
So when Colston took over the program a year ago, he started to instill an aggressive defensive mentality where his players overplay the passing lanes and switch almost every screen.
It’s taken his players a little while to adapt to this new system but on Tuesday night everything clicked right as Hoopeston Area defeated Milford 51-44. It’s the first loss of the season for the Bearcats (8-1 overall, 4-1 in the Vermilion Valley Conference) and the win avenges Milford’s 43-35 win the title game of the Watseka Holiday Tournament.
“That’s the style of defense that coach wants us to play all of the time,’’ said Hoopeston Area senior Mason Layden, who scored 12 of his team-high 14 points in the third quarter to go along with four steals and eight rebounds. “He wants us to get after it and force turnovers.
“When we shoot as poorly as we did tonight, he wants us to get down and get dirty on the defensive end.’’
The Cornjerkers (8-6, 2-1) shot at right at their season average of 34.6 percent (18-of-52) and that included a third quarter where they were 9-of-14.
“We haven’t shot well all year. If we would have shot well, we would have won several more games,’’ Colston said. “But, we are also capable of really guarding. Milford is a really talented and good team. I thought our kids played hard and got their hands on a lot of passes.’’
Hoopeston Area forced Milford into 23 turnovers and the Cornjerkers had 18 steals in the contest and they converted those Bearcat offensive miscues into 23 points.
“You have to credit their defense,’’ said Milford coach Dave Caldwell, who is filling in for coach John Spezia, who remains hospitalized after a Dec. 31 automobile accident. “They overplayed a lot, and we didn’t back cut like we were supposed to. And then our low post passes either got stolen or deflected a lot. We didn’t take care of the ball. It’s hard to win with 23 turnovers.’’
Milford committed eight of its turnovers in the third quarter leading to 12 of Hoopeston Area’s 23 points in that quarter as the Cornjerkers extended its 1-point halftime lead (19-18) to a 42-27 advantage.
“That third quarter was a disaster,’’ Caldwell said. “We gave them some open 3s because we didn’t find our man on defense and we didn’t score. That happens when you have eight turnovers in one quarter.’’
But, the Bearcats didn’t go down without a fight.
Milford went on a 9-0 run midway through the fourth quarter, pulling within 47-42 on a basket by Jeff Cann, who finished with 12 points. Hoopeston Area’s Brennan Crose, who had a game-high five steals, made four straight free throws to preserve the victory for the Cornjerkers.
“We were playing not to lose instead of playing to win in that fourth quarter,’’ said Layden, who missed a pair of free throws in the final minute, but he did pull down a pair of defensive rebounds in the frame. “Every time that we get a big lead, we always try to not to lose it.’’
It’s the third straight victory for Hoopeston Area, who will play Oakwood in a 3:45 p.m. game on Saturday in the Vermilion County Tournament at the Palmer Arena.
“Beating a good team like Milford tonight and coming off the win over GCMS (Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley) last week is a good way to go into the county tournament,’’ Layden said.
Milford is also idle until Saturday when the Bearcats will host the Chrisman Cardinals in a VVC showdown in Sheldon. That contest is part of a girl-boy doubleheader that starts at noon.
“We will find out how this team responds against a good team like Chrisman,’’ said Caldwell about the Bearcats suffering their first defeat. “We will need to take better care of the ball, I know that.’’
Alex Portwood scored a game-high 18 points for Milford, while Jacob Rogers had a game-high 10 rebounds.