Down 12 points going into the fourth quarter at Janesville Craig two weeks ago, Madison East exploded for 28 points, 17 of them from sophomore guard Nimrod Hilliard IV's cold-blooded outside shooting. But it was East's swarming, near-chaotic half-court defense that deserves most of the credit for its 75-71 overtime victory.
"That's our run-and-jump defense," says East coach Rich Cleveland. "The closest two guys to the ball are trapping, the other guys are rotating. And that is chaos because nobody knows where anybody's going to be. They're just jumping the guy with the ball. And it's been causing problems and giving our guys some energy."
That surge of energy has become East's trademark this season as the Purgolders (17-2, second place in the Big Eight, ranked fifth in the state) have won five games by five points or less. East junior forward Marquis Mason, averaging over 20 points a game and one of the premiere players in the state, is unable to explain what triggers his teammates' resilience.
"For some reason, the last quarter of the game we just decide to get to another level of intensity," he says. "We just go after everything, try to get our hands on everything, which is what we should be doing the entire game. We kick it up a notch, I guess."
Cleveland admits that winning tight games might be good for his players, even if it'd detrimental to his own health.
"It's probably a good sign that these guys are finding a way. That's the sign of a good team," he says shortly after the Craig game. "[Craig coach Bob] Suter and I were talking about that. We've both been on the other side where you're losing a lot of close ones, and that's often the difference between having a good, winning team or a team that's just average."
East's biggest win of the season came at home on January 16 when the Purgolders put together another fourth-quarter comeback and stunned Madison Memorial, ranked number one in the state at the time, 53-44. The win snapped Memorial's 81-game conference winning streak and is their only loss so far this season.
The Spartans, led by Marquette recruit Jeronne Maymon and Wisconsin recruit Vander Blue, host the rematch Thursday night at 7:30. The outcome will not affect the state tournament pairings, which were released earlier this week, but will determine whether Memorial will have to share the conference championship with East. Good luck finding tickets.