The Knob Noster Panthers are on a roll.
The Panthers have won eight of their last nine games, the latest a 59-52 overtime win over the No. 5 boys basketball team in the state, Higginsville.
“Lately our shots have been falling in and everybody’s been working together,” said Knob Noster junior center David Barton. “We’ve been playing solid defense.”
After a loss to Higginsville on Jan. 5 at the Higginsville tournament, the Panthers won the next six games. They lost the final of the Clinton tournament to Nevada, Mo., but have won both games since then.
Knob Noster coach Adam Easterwood credits the recent success to his team doing all the little things.
“We’ve been working hard and any time you’ve got guys that work hard and clean up the fundamentals good things happen to you,” he said.
It has also helped that four of those games were on Knob Noster’s home floor, where the Panthers are 7-0 this year.
“There’s no place like home,” Easterwood said. “We’ve got great crowds. When it was down the stretch against Higginsville, the atmosphere makes the team have something in the back of their mind that it’s not really in doubt. We are building a good basketball tradition.”
They’ve also been working on defense. The Panthers allowed 30 points in a win over Carrollton, 28 when they beat Concordia and 18 in a win over Lexington.
“I think we’re communicating better,” said shooting guard Brett Marsh. “I think the intensity level has been higher and overall we’ve stepped up a notch and played overall better defense.”
Part of that has been the Panthers’ use of the 2-3 zone, which Marsh said allows them to communicate better and locate shooters.
“We close out their shooters and we stay down,” said senior guard Aaron Hale. “We’re not happy feet and jumping up. Sometimes we’re not talking enough but when it does work, it works very well.”
The recent success has boosted the Panthers’ record to 16-5, already six wins more than last year when the team went 10-16. Marsh said one big improvement this season has been shot selection.
“Last year we tended to force quick shots,” he said. “If the defense was getting up on us we tended to throw up shots out of frustration. We’re limiting that this year.”
This season, Ryan Keckler has gone from spending most of his time on the perimeter to splitting time between the perimeter and the low post.
“It can be challenging at times, just in a game knowing where you want to be and knowing where to take your shots from,” he said.
This season has also been a change for Hale who has gone from taking more shots last year to setting up Marsh and Barton this season.
“There’s more to this game than just scoring,” Easterwood said. “Hale averaged 10 points per game last year and (this year) has struggled with his perimeter shot. He saw early on he was struggling and looked for other avenues to contribute to the team.”
Hale’s 40 steals are a team high. He has also dished out 47 assists. Keckler leads the team with 75 assists as two-thirds of Knob Noster’s baskets this season have come off assists.
“(Barton) puts up double-doubles every night and Brett Marsh can put up 14 points,” Hale said. “When me or Keck gets an open shot we take it but we are more looking to get it to the playmakers.”
Barton has been a solid playmaker for the Panthers, averaging 15.2 points and 9.5 rebounds per game.
“I started working harder,” he said. “I knew that I had to play my game to help out my team. I can’t play without my team. I’ve been working on my shots.”
Easterwood chalks up a lot of Barton’s success to God-given ability.
“I don’t have anything to do with him being 6-7,” Easterwood said. “Dave himself has worked very hard. My assistant, Matt Habermehl, has worked hard with him. Together they’ve worked on his foot-work and his left hand. He’s scoring over 60 percent from the field.”
He scored 20 points in the win over Higginsville with Marsh adding 19, as the Panthers avenged two previous defeats to the Huskers.
“Ever since we played Higginsville (on Jan. 5), all of us knew what we needed to do,” Hale said. “We just played tough and when it came time to play them we came in with a sense of urgency to win the game.”
“Just to know that you’re their one loss is a big confidence builder going into district play,” Keckler said.
Knob Noster and Higginsville are both in Class 3, District 14 and likely could meet again, but after beating them in the regular season, the Panthers head down the stretch run with added confidence.
“Knowing Higginsville is in our district and will likely be seeded No. 1 in our district, knowing that gives us confidence that we can play with the top team in the district,” Marsh said.
Knob Noster will host Richmond at 7 p.m. today. The Panthers have another chance to avenge an earlier loss. Richmond beat Knob Noster 56-40 on Dec. 11.