The target is getting bigger on the backs of Alton Marquette players, but nothing or no one seems to rattle them.
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Junior Nick Hemann scored 14 points Tuesday as the Explorers, ranked seventh in the new Class 3A state poll, defeated Highland 48-37 to improve to 25-0.
“We knew it was going to be a big game against an MVC (Mississippi Valley Conference) team. We just came here with high energy on the defensive end,” said the 6-foot-6 Hemann, who missed his first two shots before connecting on his final seven.
With Hemann and 6-7 junior Jake Hall patrolling the paint, the Bulldogs turned to 3-pointers, with little success. They were 6 of 26 from beyond the arc and 12 of 43 overall (28 percent).
Defense clearly is the calling card for the Explorers.
“Every single day, the first thing we work on is defense,” Hall said. “We don’t go straight into offense and work on our plays. We go straight into defense because that’s what wins us all our games. Without our great defense that we have right now, we wouldn’t be 25-0. We would have lost probably five of those games.”
Highland junior Brady Feldman led all scorers with 19 points and accounted for seven of the Bulldogs’ baskets, including three 3-pointers.
Junior Sam LaPorta had seven points and junior Jake Kruse had six.
“They’re good,” Bulldogs coach Brian Perkes said. “They’re 25-0 for a reason. They play hard-nosed defense for 32 minutes. I thought we had open looks. We just didn’t make shots tonight. Credit them for that. Their defense is good.
“(Feldman) was about all we had on the offensive end, to be honest. We had one starter who didn’t score (Stephen Schniers) and we had another starter who gave us two points (Stephen Torre). When you’ve got 40 percent of your starting crew out there giving you two points, that’s not a good thing.”
The teams combined to miss 12 shots to open the game, a drought that ended when Kruse nailed a 3-pointer that put Highland ahead 5-0. Kruse closed the first quarter with another 3-pointer to put Highland ahead 8-7.
But after the Explorers opened the second quarter with a 7-0 run to take a 14-8 lead, Highland never led again.
“I thought our defense was the difference in the game,” said Marquette coach Steve Medford, whose team forced 12 turnovers. “The boys took care of business. We didn’t play real well, but we defended really well, and that was the difference in the game.”
Medford said defense is “99 percent” of the Explorers’ perfect record.
“People say, ‘You’ve got some kids that are offensively skilled,’” Medford said. “Yes, we do. But I think (defense) has been a testament to our program. That’s where we’re going to win at — on the defensive end. If (opponents) can’t score, they can’t win. That’s what we’ve built the program around.”
Marquette led 20-17 at halftime, then built a 30-21 lead on junior Isaiah Ervin’s basket and a free throw by Hall with 4:39 to play in the third quarter.
The Bulldogs rallied to within 30-28 as Feldman and junior Jack Etter each hit a 3-pointer, but Marquette scored the next seven points, with Ervin’s 3-pointer at the 5:03 mark of the fourth quarter making it 37-28. The gap grew to 48-34 with 1:09 to play.
“They were physical with us,” Perkes said. “They’re a better team than we are right now. There’s no doubt. ... We got down seven, eight points, and then it was difficult because we just weren’t generating any offense.”
Medford said the Explorers, who shot 44 percent from the field (18 of 41) and committed just seven turnovers, aren’t worried about the unbeaten record.
“As a team, we don’t really talk about it. But they know it’s there,” he said. “I don’t think it’s wearing on them. I just think they’re ready to play these last three games and see what we can do in the postseason.”