They came to see the debut of the Willoughby era. What they saw was an exciting new work in progress…and glimpses of old habits that die hard.
Sidney – They packed Sidney High School’s tiny claustrophobic gym Friday night to see the debut of the John Willoughby era of basketball; what turned out to be an 80-73 Yellow Jacket win (2-0) over the now 0-2 Red Devils of Joel Visser.
Willoughby, after all those years at Houston, all those wins, and a reputation that’s one of the most respected in southwest Ohio basketball, took the job last spring amidst anticipation of one of Sidney’s best group of basketball athletes in decades. Sophomore Andre Gordon, who dazzled as a freshman with his pure athleticism was back, with a cast of complements that could run, and jump, and score.
It was also anticipated that Willoughby, a no-nonsense teacher of the game who values basketball skills and court discipline, would be able to harness that athleticism, instill some savvy and patience, and work beyond the disturbing trend of leads and games lost inexplicably last year when the wheels seemed to fall off in the second half.
And for the first twenty minutes of Friday’s home opener with Tipp City, the fans and the nay-sayers sat and watched, spellbound, as Gordon, Isaiah Bowser, Ratez Roberts and company sprinted out to a comfortable, and comforting, 40-23 halftime lead.
Gordon was mercuric, gliding up and down the court – in and out of traffic – his head on a swivel as he spotted open teammates and fed them the ball in rhythm for easy scores at the rim. When that wasn’t an option he put his foot on the gas and took care of matters himself, flying to the rim or rising to shoot that beautiful 18-foot jumper that defies defending. His ability to elevate is that good; sets him apart.
By the six minute mark of the third quarter the Yellow Jackets had built their lead to 19 points, running the floor on offense, challenging every Tipp possession on defense. It looked like a seasoned tournament team playing a team in its first scrimmage.
“I liked the way we were playing,” said Willoughby afterwards. “At the beginning of the game I thought we were playing pretty well. But I don’t know…whether we get tired, or what, but we have a tendency to let teams back in the game. This is two games in a row and I have to figure this out.”
Indeed, because from the 5:30 point of the third quarter that’s exactly what Sidney did. They let Tipp back in the game. The Red Devils began slashing to the rim with Josh Wildermuth. They hit shots from the perimeter from Caiden Smith. They came up with defensive stops and turnovers. And before you knew it they had cut the lead to 11 – then 9 – then 7 – and 6.
In a word, Sidney lapsed into some of the same patterns of play that defined their 2015-16 season, and the inexplicable losses, like at Piqua, where they blew a sizeable lead in the second half and lost at the end.
They were something less than focused on defense, even with Willoughby shouting “get in a stance” repeatedly from the bench.
They didn’t box out underneath, allowing Tipp offensive rebounds and easy stick-backs for second-chance points.
Offensively, they tried to play too fast, do too much, and became too individual. Instead of taking care of the basketball and the clock, they tried to force their will on a Tipp team that eagerly accepted every gift offered. The “something new” of the first half suddenly looked like “something old”, something that Willoughby could, or should, surely fix.
But Tipp’s bid to come all the way back fell short. Andre Gordon saw to that by settling down in the final two minutes, slashing to the rim for the finishing touches on his 31-point night. It was indeed, as one put it…something old, and something new.
“I think we just get too happy with ourselves sometimes,” said Willoughby, afterwards. “We came out like dynamite tonight, but there’s that little piece of something that happens that allows teams to get back in the game. I have to figure it out – whether it’s fatigue, or whether we’re subbing and the subs aren’t performing…or we’re trying to do too much to impress people.
“We’re going to work on these things. But these guys like to go…and I like to play that way. I played that way myself. But to be a great basketball team we’ve got to play smarter with the lead. We’ve got to build on a lead instead of being up by fifteen and thinking we’ve got this thing. We should have built the lead to 25 tonight. We’ve got some guys who just aren’t accustomed to playing that way, and they’re going to have to figure out that we’re not going to play that way…or they’re not going to be in the game. That’s the way I approach it.”
The numbers were impressive: Behind Gordon’s 31, Bowser and Roberts finished with 16 each. Rogers scored 11 – four players in double figures.
For Tipp, their comeback was almost as impressive. Wildermuth finished with a team-high 16 points. Caiden Smith and Quentin Williams closed with 14 and 13, respectively.
Neither team was particularly clean in terms of turnovers, but at one point Sidney had built a whopping advantage in rebounds (24-7). The Red Devils even brought that back to a respectable deficit.
“We’re 0-2 and in both games we’ve won the second half,” Joel Visser lamented. “But we’ve also got some guys playing their first varsity minutes. That’s no excuse, but what I mean is we’ve got some growing up to do. When you’re playing a team as athletically gifted as Sidney you can’t play a half and win. You have to play four quarters.”
For those who came specifically to see Opus 2 of Andre Gordon, he didn’t disappoint.
“Gosh, when you can elevate for your jump shot like he does he’s always going to be open, even when he’s covered,” added Visser. “That’s why he’s going to be a Division I basketball player (at the next level). I thought we worked on him, but we didn’t do enough to get in the lane and contest the mid-range jumpers.”
The “new” part of this scenario is the excitement in John Willoughby’s voice as he considers the work to be done ahead, and the fruits of that work. This is a team that can score points in bunches, and in a hurry. Andre Gordon is a player that’s going to draw attention and still score, and the more attention he draws the easier he makes it for Bowser, Roberts, Rogers and Josiah Hudgins to make their own contribution.
He’s the most special talent Willoughby’s had at his disposal in all his years of coaching.
“There’s no question,” he added as he prepared to leave Friday. “But some of that may be the reason that teams get back into us…because everyone’s watching someone else try to do some stuff. Which is fine sometimes, but what happened tonight should never have happened. That was a little disappointing.”
A little of the old, and a little of the new. But it was…a win!