POPLAR GROVE, Ill. — Please forgive the Clinton boys basketball game if it seems as though the season just began for them.
In a certain sense, it has. The Cougars played their third game under interim head coach John Gracyalny, and it appeared as though things were starting to come together for Clinton in an 87-55 victory over North Boone Saturday night.
After squeaking by Big Foot and falling to Brodhead 64-61 Friday, the Cougars employed their new fulll-court press to great success, getting 18 steals and cruising to the victory.
Now 2-1 under Gracyalny and 5-4 overall, the Cougars will return to Rock Valley Conference play with a game against Jefferson Thursday.
Clinton was led by Zach Krause and Cole Ciochon, both of whom scored 17 points. Terrell Walker had his second straight solid game, contributing 14 points off the bench.
Gracyalny said the up-tempo style is designed to take advantage of his team’s strengths athletically.
“Instead of letting the other team walk the ball up the floor, we want to make the speed it up,” Gracyalny said. “It keeps us moving and makes us more aggressive. Tonight it seemed to work well.”
The Cougars finished the game with 18 steals, the vast majority of them coming out of the press. Gracyalny said defense, which hasn’t exactly been the Cougars’ calling card over the past few seasons, is the key to strong play moving forward.
“The defensive end for us is huge,” Gracyalny said. “We want to play up-tempo on offense, but in order to do that, we’ve got to get stops. If we don’t, we can still push it, but it’s not as effective.”
Beyond the adjustment of getting used to playing with a new system, Gracyalny also believes the team was playing with a mental strain.
“We told the kids tonight just to go out there and have some fun,” Gracyalny said. “Play loose. I think we’ve had some pressure just because of the change, and I wanted them to not worry about wins and losses. Just go out and play basketball.”
Krause said the change, while unique, has bad a positive effect thus far.
“We’re playing a system now that takes advantage of our athleticism,” Krause said. “We had a tough loss against Brodhead, but right now we’re just moving forward and taking it one game at a time. Going from a 2-3 zone to playing more man and with the press, it’s going to take a little time.”
Ciochon said Gracyalny has raised the expectations of the team. “We’re having to work a lot harder in practice now,” Ciochon said. “John has a really good basketball IQ and he makes the right calls when we need him to. Once we get settled in with this system, I think it’s going to be great.”
North Boone (2-10) was led by Britton Morris, who scored 15 points. The Vikings made a late run int the first half against Clinton reserves, cutting the halftime lead to 30-20. .But Clinton outscored North Boone 22-12 in the third quarter to pull away for the win.
Vikings coach Richard Williams said there are several areas in which his team must improve.
“From here on out, it’s about playing better defense and rebounding the ball better,” Williams said. “There were some highlights tonight. Britton was really good, but we need more guys crashing the boards. Clinton got so many second chances tonight, and that was hard to come back from.”