Unionville-Sebewaing Area boys’ basketball coach Mark Gainforth has asked some of his players to take fewer three-point shots in an effort to create more balance on the offensive end of the court, but three-point plays — and even four-point plays — are welcomed with open arms.
Wednesday’s 62-41 Greater Thumb West win over Caro saw the Patriots hit the Tigers with a barrage of all of the above, mixed with an aggressive full-court pressure defense that showed signs of slowing Caro down as early as the end of the first quarter.
USA made seven 3-pointers on the night, but also had a rare four-point play and four three-point plays after getting fouled in the act of scoring in each instance and making the follow-up free throw.
Landin Zimmer led the way with four of his team’s three-point makes and an additional three-point play for good measure on his way to a game-high 17 points. Cade Rierson swished a three-pointer while being fouled in the fourth quarter and proceeded to complete a four-point play for the Patriots, staying with the big-play theme of the win.
“I think it was just one of those nights for us,” said Zimmer of the Patriots finding their rhythm and, more importantly, maintaining it.
“We had one before the (holiday) break like this, too,” he added of USA’s 70-17 home win over Ubly on Dec. 19. “I’m very happy with where we’re at right now. We’re just trying to continue what we did last year, looking to stay undefeated in the league and playing as hard as we can.”
With the win, the Patriots move to 6-0 (2-0 GTC West).
Caro came out of the gate strong in its first matchup with the defending GTC West champs since joining the conference this school year, taking a 9-3 lead.
The Patriots settled in shortly thereafter, helped by a trio of three-point plays — all in the first half — from Nash Morton. All of Morton’s 11 points came in the opening half, which saw USA lead 16-14 after the first quarter and 30-19 at halftime.
“He pulled us back into the game after they made their initial run,” said Gainforth of Morton. “Nash has really played well defensively for us, but he’s also very capable offensively and gave us a big boost tonight.
“It was nice to see him make some shots and be that aggressive offensively.”
It was easy to feed off the energy Morton played with, said Zimmer.
“It boosts the team’s confidence, and then we look to keep it going,” he said. “We started out pretty slow in the first half, but we picked it up and started making the shots when we needed to.”
Of early concern for USA was its top playmaker Micah Cramer heading to the bench with his second foul just 3:41 into the game, but the spark provided by Morton picked up his backcourt mate, and the Patriots went on to steady their ship. Cramer subbed in and out strategically throughout the remainder of the first half, scoring four points, but finished with 12 after adding eight in the second half.
“After we got into a bit of a rhythm we made a nice little run,” said Gainforth of answering Caro’s early intensity. “In the second half we were a lot more aggressive offensively, and it allowed us to pull away.”
Starting the second half down 11 and with no margin for error, Caro needed a change in momentum and quickly, but the Patriots refused to let it happen. USA outpointed the Tigers 19-10 in the third quarter, extending its lead to 49-29 entering the fourth.
The teams mostly just traded baskets in the last eight minutes, with the Patriots holding a 13-12 scoring edge to run out the clock on the victory.
“I’m really happy with our start,” said Gainforth of remaining unbeaten. “I didn’t necessarily think we’d be in the situation that we’re in right now, but once you see the potential to have a nice season is there, expectations rise.”
Trevin Phillips had 16 points, 11 rebounds and three steals to lead Caro (2-6, 1-2 GTC West), which also got eight points from Caleb Cotton and six points from Tyler Foster. All nine Caro players who got in the game scored, and the Tigers had 11 team steals.
Adam Smith is sports editor at The Advertiser and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.