SIDNEY — After Jackson Center gave up seven points in the last 81 seconds of the first quarter of a nonconference game on Tuesday, coach Jeff Reese gave a fiery speech to the squad between quarters that every person in the sparse COVID-19 restricted crowd at Lehman Catholic’s Schlater Family Gymnasium could hear.
No one in the gym missed the team’s response to the speech, either.
The Tigers’ picked up their defensive pressure in the last three quarters and held Lehman to 11 points in that time to earn their first victory of the season with a 37-22 win.
“Defense is something we want to stress each and every game, especially since we’re struggling to score, which is something we’re working on,” Reese said. “If we’re not scoring, we’ve got to be able to play some defense and try to keep the game in lower figures.”
The Tigers (1-5) haven’t played much this season, partly because COVID-19 exposure forced Reese and a couple of players to miss time in December and forced several games to be postponed.
The squad hadn’t played a nonconference game before Tuesday and hadn’t come within 10 points of any Shelby County Athletic League team in its first five contests.
Reese hopes Tuesday’s win will have a positive impact going forward for the experienced squad. The team finished 6-18 overall last year and has all but two players back.
“It always feels better to win,” Reese said. “It’s great for the kids to experience that. The goal is now to string a few of these together. …To have the kids experience what it feels like and what it takes to get there I think is something that all teams should get to experience at some point.”
Jackson Center senior guard Ashley Mullenhour led the team with eight points on Tuesday, all of which came in the second half. Mullenhour is a three-year varsity player.
“She’s a very athletic player,” Reese said. “She can get to the basket just about any time. Sometimes she maybe struggles with the finish, but she is definitely quick. She brings a level of energy and toughness that we need. She’s not afraid to get on the floor and guard a 6-0 player when she’s giving up a lot of height.”
It was the third consecutive loss for Lehman (4-4). The Cavaliers haven’t scored more than 22 points in any of the three losses, which were all nonconference games.
Aside from their hot stretch at the end of the first quarter, Lehman struggled to shoot throughout the game. The squad shot 7 for 53 (13 percent) from the floor and 7 for 20 (35 percent) from the free-throw line.
“We had to earn the buckets against their defense, and we weren’t,” Lehman coach Craig Hall said. “We’re not running off the screens, we’re not posting up, we’re not looking to the post until it’s too late. …We’ve got to find a way to put the ball in the basket. There’s no other way of looking at it.”
The team also struggled to rebound against Jackson Center’s trio of Regan Clark (6-foot-0), Katie Clark (6-0) and Sarah Clark (5-9).
“We did not show up tonight physically,” Hall said. “There was a lot of kids on the floor tonight; it was just that kind of a game. But you’ve got to adapt to the way the game is being called. Shelby County and the MAC are always physical games. (Our players) have just got to learn to step up.”
Lehman, which was without starting guard Kiersten Franklin on Tuesday, trailed 4-2 early but finished the first on a 8-2 run to take an 11-6 lead. Anna Cianciolo hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key with 1:21 left during the run and Mara O’Leary hit two baskets in the final minute, including a put-back at the buzzer.
Jackson Center shut down the Cavaliers in the second quarter with an 8-0 scoring advantage; Regan Clark scored all six of her points in the quarter on shots in the post.
Mullenhour scored six points in the second to help lead a 14-6 scoring advantage that pushed the lead to 28-17 heading into the fourth. The Cavaliers didn’t come closer than 10 points in the final quarter.
“If we could have had the defensive pressure on the ball (Franklin) brings, that would have helped,” Hall said. “But they did a nice job of spreading the ball and making us work defensively, and we just gave up the catch and shoots. We just had too many defensive breakdowns. And getting beat on the boards didn’t help.”
Aside from Mullenhour and Regan Clark, Ava Winner added seven points for the Tigers and Morgan Huber added six.
O’Leary, a freshman forward, led Lehman with 10 points, eight rebounds and two steals. Cianciolo brought down six rebounds and added four points.
The Tigers are slated to play next on Thursday at Botkins while Lehman is scheduled to host Bethel on Saturday.
Reach Bryant Billing at 937-538-4818, or follow @SidneyOHSports on Twitter and @BryantBillingSDN on Facebook.