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SPENCERVILLE — Victories like the one his team put up on Friday night over New Knoxville thrilled Spencerville head coach Kevin Sensabaugh a year ago as he shepherded an inexperienced group of players from a five-win team two seasons ago to a squad that was a win away from the regional tournament in 2011.
Now with a roster full of experienced, skilled players Sensabaugh wants the kind of net-ripping performance his team showcased against the Rangers to be the norm.
The Bearcats showed what kind of offensive and defensive team they can be in the game’s first 16 minutes. Spencerville buried nine of the first 10 shots it took from the floor and led by double digits the rest of the way in a 65-47 win over the Rangers.
“The difference between last year and this year is nobody expected us to get that win,” Sensabaugh said of the 68-51 win last Dec. 30. “And now we’re a team people think has a chance to be a decent team. We’ve kind of struggled with those expectations early, so we’re trying to work our way through that. I think our guys are on their way.”
It’s a kind of pressure New Knoxville grew accustomed with over the past half decade as it rolled through its schedule. Now New Knoxville is charged with building with a nucleus of players who are largely underclassmen.
The Bearcats had this younger version of the Rangers’ number from the tip-off.
“The thing that disappointed me was they came out and punched us in the face and we backed down,” New Knoxville head coach Kort Fledderjohann said.
Spencerville drained six of its first eight 3-point attempts in the first half to balloon out to a double-digit advantage.
“That first half was almost an exact duplicate of the game they had against us last year at our place,” Fledderjohann said. “We talked all week to our guys about giving quick help and not leaving shooters open. We let them turn the corner and our help was too deep and they kicked it out for open three after open three.”
Spencerville went 8-for-9 from the floor in the first quarter and led 19-9 after eight minutes.
“I didn’t even realize we made nine of our first ten shots,” Sensabaugh said. “I felt like our defensive intensity early in the game was really, really good. That kind of propels you. When we play better defensively, we play better offensively.”
Spencerville combo guard Eli Bowers scored 16 points in the first half and ended up with 20 points on 7-of-10 shooting.
“He’s been shooting the ball well in practice and I think it carried over into tonight,” Sensabaugh. “He did an outstanding job of being patient. He didn’t force shots. He took ones that were open and because his teammates did a good job of executing the offense, he got good looks.”
The Bearcats are 4-3 on the season after the win — a record that isn’t eye-popping. But they entered the campaign with expectations heaped on them after bringing back much of its roster from last year’s team that went to the district finals last March.
The Bearcats stunned the eventual Midwest Athletic Conference champion at The Barn by 17 points right before the New Year’s holiday a season ago. Spencerville then beat New Knoxville in a bitterly contested overtime game in the district tournament in March.
Lucas Leffel led New Knoxville with a game-high 22 points. No one else scored more than six points.
Fledderjohann said the young surrounding cast on his team will need to help shoulder the scoring load for his team to be successful against top-flight teams like Spencerville.
“I challenged everybody else at halftime,” Fledderjohann said. “We know what we have in Jake (Allen) and Lucas (Leffel). The youngsters have to find a way to grow up fast.”
New Knoxville’s best hopes of getting back into the game came when Leffel hit a 30-foot three-pointer at the buzzer to end the third quarter that pulled the Rangers to within 12 points.
“We told the players at the quarter break that it’s a ballgame now,” Sensabaugh said. “We had to make sure we started the fourth quarter with some defensive intensity and we did.”
New Knoxville missed a lay-up in the opening seconds of the fourth quarter and Spencerville countered with a 13-4 run to put the game away.