Highlands boys show their grit in Section 1-4A win over Freeport

Friday, January 25, 2019 | 10:54 PM

Highlands wants to be known as more than just the Running Rams. The dunks, transition buckets and 3-pointers remain, but now a grittier Golden Rams team is running away from its opponents.

Employing a shutdown defense and a driving mentality on offense, Highlands blitzed host Freeport on Friday, racking up an early double-digit lead and racing to a 62-36 win over the Section 1-4A rival Yellowjackets inside “The Hive” at Freeport Area Middle School.

“We’re getting back to our basics,” said junior Luke Cochran, who scored a game-high 22 points. “We’re priding ourselves on defense, which is a key for us. That’s just how we’re instilled. It’s a Highlands nature. You fight for what you want.

“We go into games with the mindset of nobody’s going to come into our family and disrespect us, so we’re kind of always intense and up on defense, getting loose balls and diving on the floor. It’s just our culture.”

A 74-59 loss to Knoch on Jan. 8 provided something of a wakeup call for Highlands (11-4, 6-1), particularly on the defensive end. The Golden Rams, who clinched a WPIAL playoff spot earlier this week, have won five consecutive games since the Knoch loss, giving up 46.6 points per game in that span.

Highlands forced 23 Freeport turnovers and held the Yellowjackets (8-7, 3-4) to single-digit scoring totals in three of the four quarters.

“The focus has changed,” Highlands coach Tyler Stoczynski said. “We challenged our guys. We said you have to take it personal when someone scores on you. It’s not just scoring on you, it’s scoring on us, and I think that really kind of stuck with our guys.”

Freeport, down starting forward Nolan Plocki to a season-ending shoulder injury and starting a pair of freshmen, lost its fourth straight game to slip into fourth place in the section. The Yellowjackets played from down double digits for most of the night, trailing by as many as 31 points in the fourth quarter.

“Unfortunately, we’ve done that the last four games — we had a bad quarter where we couldn’t put it in the ocean, let alone the basket,” Freeport coach Wayne Greiser said. “We got a lot of good looks, we just couldn’t capitalize on them. We got them in foul trouble early on. We were doing things we wanted to do, other than making the open shots.”

With a crowded gym on hand for the rivalry matchup, Highlands quieted the boisterous home fans and put the game out of reach early.

Freeport actually scored the first basket of the game on a steal and Jalen Brown layup, but Highlands went on a 21-2 run, holding the Yellowjackets without a field goal for seven minutes and ultimately taking a 23-6 lead into the second. At one point during the run, Highlands hit three 3-pointers in a 60-second span, two by reserve Mason Swanger and another by Korry Myers.

Highlands led 37-20 at halftime and 50-29 after three quarters, with Freeport getting only as close as 14 points in the second half.

“In any game you want a fast start to deflate them real quick and try to get up big, and hopefully you can keep that pace the whole game,” Cochran said. “Which we ended up doing pretty well tonight. We just need to keep our foot on the pedal.”

Freeport got 16 points from senior Jalen Brown, who hit a pair of 3-pointers, but he was the only Yellowjackets player in double figures.

“We just played our third game in four nights, which is tough, too,” Greiser said. “Let’s give Highlands a lot of credit, too: They’re a good team, well-coached, and they’ve got some good players over there. They were firing on all cylinders early on, which didn’t help.”

Highlands still brought out a couple of big plays: Johnny Crise, who finished with 11 points, had an early putback dunk and another on a fast break in the fourth quarter.

But the Golden Rams are proving they’re more than just a highlight reel, as Myers and Swanger each scored nine points, the latter of which came on a trio of 3-pointers, and the Golden Rams also got valuable bench minutes from the likes of Antoine McDaniel and Kaeleb Radashak.

That might prove valuable, especially with a first-place battle looming Tuesday against Knoch (13-3, 7-0).

“It’s one of those maturing processes, just getting better,” Stoczynski said. “We’re working on a lot of things in practice, and guys are getting better. We’re starting to play together, and we’re starting to share the ball, and it’s starting to show on the floor.”

Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Doug at [email protected] or via Twitter @dgulasy_Trib.

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