The toughest conference to predict in the preseason was the Northeast 8. And it brought some questions, mostly from Leo faithful. But after seeing New Haven open its season on Wednesday with a 69-53 win over Woodlan, I am firmly standing by my first stance: New Haven is the clear team to beat.
It was far from a perfect showcase, but that is clearly to be expected on opening night of the season.
But many of the stars aligned in the right ways. Thanksgiving Eve is the start of it all, no matter how many teams played before it. And the amazing facility at New Haven was the perfect setting to start the year and prove my point.
“It is always nice to start the season. I think we had some of those first-game jitters,” said Terry Collins, filling in as head coach for the Bulldogs on opening night. Head coach Bruce Stephens was absent due to a technical foul we was assessed last season in the sectional round.
Collins, who was a star at Snider in his heyday, filled in admirably to push New Haven to 1-0.
The first quarter showed signs of what New Haven’s defense can do with its aggression and the pace it pushes. They full-court pressed Woodlan and forced some turnovers, but really spent a lot of the time in the feeling-out process. While Jamarr Hutchins took off on every break, the Bulldogs turned defense into offense well. And while that pressure needed some time to get its feet fully under itself, New Haven’s fight at the rim led to many second-chance opportunities.
“The most important thing I told them was defense, you can always control defense. You can’t always control the shots, whether they go in our out,” Collins said. “But you can always control your energy.”
It were those multiple shots at the rim though that really saw the Bulldogs pull away in the second quarter. Pure will and physicality was something that New Haven was able to do well. Hutchins weaved through bigger defenders to grab his fair share of rebounds while Thomas Latham and Ja’kar Williams both played big to assert New Haven on the offensive end.
When Woodlan tried to strike back with pace and a physical nature, it backfired when Mitch Mendenhall picked up his third foul in the second quarter. While New Haven flexed enough depth to go deep during its foul woes, Woodlan didn’t have that luck. Mendenhall’s 11 points were a game high at the point that he had to sit out with foul trouble. The depth New Haven has immediately helps it assert its will and pace; and other teams are going to have trouble keeping up.
“Our first five is really athletic and talented. So if we can get our first five to play defense, we can surprise a lot of teams,” Collins said. “If we don’t have that effort, we can let teams stick around and the game goes a little bit longer than you want it to.”
It stopped Woodlan from keeping up in the second half. The Bulldogs’ pressure and ability to back tap the ball away from the Warriors led to a lot of fast break scoring. Hutchins, Latham, Williams, Donovynn Lewis and D’Andre Wright all played pivotal roles in the defensive pace that turned into offensive pace. At times, they created chaos for Woodlan’s offense and never let the Warriors find a consistent rhythm. Without that rhythm, the shots didn’t fall either for Woodlan who saw a lot of its jumpers roll around and rim out.
“First half, we had some glimpses. Second half, we did it here and there,” Collins said of pockets of success on the night, noting that his talk with Stephens after the game will include a lot of talk about Williams, a sophomore who had a stellar season on the football field as New Haven’s quarterback, but also focus so much on the defense.
“We just really need to work on our team defense because one of our keys is going to be our press this year. Being fast, we want to play fast, we’ve got to be able to run that press and do it at a level that is going to allow us to run teams,” Collins added.
Meanwhile, the Bulldogs as a whole hit big shots and had big putbacks. They finished at the rim through contact and flexed into multiple and-one success stories. Latham finished with a couple of those and-ones with 19 points and 12 rebounds while Hutchins had 16 points, nine rebounds and five assists and Williams had 11 points, eight rebounds, five assists and four blocks.
New Haven’s all-around effort was physical and far from flawless, but it all lent a hand to dictating a pace that one has to be happy with on night one. Hopefully that is part of Collins’ call to Stephens too: pace sets New Haven apart on night one.
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