by Calli Newberry
Trailing by eight to start the fourth quarter, the Armada High School boys basketball team began its comeback campaign. But with less than five minutes to go, the score was tied and there was no telling who’d walk away victorious.
“I knew going into it was probably going to be a little bit of a nervy start for a lot of our kids,” Armada head coach Chris Haller said. “It was a lot of firsts tonight: a lot of kids’ first varsity game, their first chance at seeing this type of competition, my first game as their head coach at the varsity level…so I knew it was going to start with some of those nerves.”
Armada hosted St. Clair on Tuesday night for an exciting season opener. The first and second quarters each ended in a one-point difference, but St. Clair took full advantage of open looks and opportunities in the third quarter to snag an eight-point lead: 44-36.
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The Tigers dialed it back in to start the fourth quarter with a more aggressive defense, something Haller said was huge for his team. It allowed them to take a lead of their own to win the game, 52-49.
“It was just getting back to what we do defensively. We had that small dip in the third quarter and we let them take advantage of what we were doing,” Haller said. “They came out and were doing things really, really well, and we didn’t do our defense as well as we could.”
He said he challenged his players to get back to their “defensive identity,” something Armada has traditionally been known for.
“They took that challenge,” he said. “That was the key thing, getting some consecutive stops and converting those into some transition points.”
Those transition points would prove to be one of the game’s deciding factors.
To start, junior forward Douglas Noonkester snatched a rebound and passed it up the court to junior forward Preston Hill, who saw senior guard Easton Vyt down low and gave him the ball. Vyt, out of position, saw junior forward Justin Schapman behind him and threw him the ball. He scored a layup to start the fourth quarter and gave Armada some momentum: 44-38.
Another quick layup by Hill at the six-minute mark put the Tigers within four, and shortly after he drove by three defenders in the lane for yet another layup: 44-42.
On the defensive end of the court, senior center Nathan Schapman tipped a missed shot out to senior guard Wyatt Waskin, who took the ball all the way to the hoop for a contested layup. He made the shot to tie the game at 44 with about four minutes remaining.
From there, the two teams exchanged leads four times before the Tigers claimed the fifth and final lead of the quarter to finish the game.
Hill led both teams in scoring with 23 points, something Haller said was not unexpected.
“I wouldn’t say it was unexpected. Preston is a really good player, he’s just really quiet,” Haller said. “He’s there and he’s always doing really good things, you just sometimes don’t notice it because he plays so to himself and hides really well, which is a good thing for us because it allows him to get open.”
But after nailing five consecutive three pointers last night, Hill may find it more difficult to hide in future games.
“These last few practices he had been shooting really, really well, so I wanted to get him some opportunities and he went off tonight. He got the looks that he needed to in the position that he was shooting from,” Haller said. “His first five shots were threes and he made the first five. Between the first, second, and third quarters, he was five-for-five in threes and he eventually missed one, but that got him rolling.”
It also sparked the rest of his offense, as Noonkester chipped in with eight points and Justin Schapman added seven.
For the Saints, senior guard Eli Lohr led his team with 15 points and four assists, while fellow senior forward Kai Pennewell had eight points and 11 rebounds.
For the rest of this week, Armada will travel to St. Clair Shores Lake Shore on Thursday night while St. Clair will host Port Huron High on Friday night.