Highlands boys adapt in win over Armstrong

Thursday, January 11, 2018 | 11:42 PM

The running Rams looked more like the rugged Rams on Thursday night.

Forced to play at a slower pace than usual by Armstrong, Highlands showed its adaptability, turning up the intensity on defense and pulling away from the River Hawks in the fourth quarter for a 53-39 victory in a Section 3-5A game.

“We want to be the best defense, so we have to go out there and prove it every night,” senior Romello Freeman said. “This night might not have been one of the best nights, but we try to get better every night. I love defense in every sport, so I take very kind to that.

“I don't want teams scoring, it's that simple.”

Although Highlands' highlights this season skew more to the offensive end of the floor — alley-oop dunks and 3-point sharpshooting — the Golden Rams are showing a shutdown defense in recent games. Highlands (7-3, 2-1) is limiting opponents to 41.8 points during its current six-game winning streak, holding five teams to fewer than 50.

“We try to pride ourselves on defense,” Highlands coach Tyler Stoczynski said. “We were struggling a little bit in the beginning of the year, and I think we're starting to find our bearings a little bit. We've got to continue to do that, continue to communicate better and go from there.”

With Armstrong's deliberate pace setting the tone, the game remained close for three quarters.

But Highlands' length and athleticism made life difficult for the River Hawks (5-7, 1-2) on the offensive end. The Golden Rams trapped frequently, forcing Armstrong into turnovers, and they challenged virtually every inside shot — with Freeman, 6-foot-6 Shawn Erceg and 6-7 Johnny Crise swatting several away.

“We had a couple shots roll in and out, (and) we missed a couple easy layups early,” Armstrong coach Greg Hutcherson said. “But overall, I'm proud of my team. I thought we fought hard on a long week, and we've got to bounce back.”

Highlands led 21-18 at halftime and 33-28 through three quarters before finding its pace in the fourth quarter, outscoring Armstrong 20-11 to pull away.

“We just had to up the intensity,” Freeman said.

With its outside shots not falling as frequently as usual, Highlands turned to off-ball cutting and transition points on offense.

Freeman had a big second half, scoring all of his game-high 15 points after halftime and flashing his athletic ability with a putback dunk and reverse layup in the fourth quarter.

“He's a tremendous athlete, and he was a man among boys tonight,” Stoczynski said. “He took his game up another level, and in turn he put us on his back a little bit and made sure we got that win.”

Christian Tanilli added 11 points for Highlands.

Isaiah Price scored 12 points, and Nate Baillie had 10 for Armstrong, which dropped its fourth straight game.

“I thought we played a great game; the score doesn't dictate what it really was,” Hutcherson said. “They played a great fourth quarter, and we didn't.”

Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at dgulasy@tribweb.com or via Twitter @dgulasy_Trib.

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