NORTHAMPTON, Mass. -- For the fans of the defensive minded -- fans of floor burns, chest bumps and a good old-fashioned elbowing -- Rey Harp is a gem.
At Northampton High, Harp's modus operandi is a distressing man-to-man defense that, on this particular night, was predicated on traps and double teams designed to slow down Westfield's dangerous backcourt, the biggest key to its surprising start so far. Blue Devils players say the battle is usually won at practice, where players run hard -- and often.
"We focus a lot on conditioning. Every free throw we miss, we're running," says senior Grant Cooper, Noho's 6-foot-4 bruiser in the paint. "Stuff like that. We focus on it, just so we can get up and down the court with a whole bunch of these teams."
The final score -- a 71-68 win, handing Westfield its first loss of the season, and improving the Devils to 11-1 -- suggests a different game on paper. The Devils admitted it wasn't their best defensive game, and the Bombers' senior backcourt of Alex Gartska and Jordan Santiago combined for 41 points. But when the No. 15 Bombers (11-1) tried to rally and put together runs, the Devil backcourt led by the likes of T.J. Devane (17 points) and Jarrod Neumann (13) forced a series of off-balance and contested shots in the final minutes.
And with 25 seconds remaining, the Devils turned in arguably their best defensive rotation at the most important time. Clinging to a 69-63 lead, Devane chased Gartska (21 points, 6 for 15 field goals) from the right sideline all the way around the three-point arc, until finally the hot-handed guard settled for an ugly three-point attempt at the top of the key. Gartska leaned into Devane to try and draw contact, only to watch his shot air-ball into the hands of teammate Billy Smith, who tried to keep the ball inbounds but threw it right to Cooper (14 points, 10 rebounds).
Cooper threw an outlet pass to Neumann, who was immediately fouled and sank both free throws for a 71-63 lead with 13.8 seconds left.
"We wanted to make him (Gartska) take tough shots," Cooper said. "He got a couple open looks, which we were pretty OK with that, as long as for the most part he's taking contested jump shots. We thought we did pretty good on that."
Harp, meanwhile, was cautionary when asked to assess his trap defense.
"We put alot of pressure on the perimeter, and thankfully in a game like this, the backcourt -- the smart players in the backcourt -- did a nice job of handling that," Harp said. "I thought the pressure we put on them, they countered well -- two players who can certainly take what we don't seal off for them.
"So there were times I was a little bit worried. I thought about packing it in, and playing a little bit off from there. We played it in the rhythm that we could find, we do put pressure on the perimeter, and it was more helpful than it was hurtful tonight. But there were times when I thought it hurt us."
Specifically, Harp might have been speaking to a period over the end of the third quarter and beginning of fourth, where the Bombers created a series of turnovers out of a half-court 2-2-1 press and cut the lead to as little as five. Meanwhile, the Devils cooled off from long range after starting the night 8 of 10 from three-pointers -- including some great open looks knocked down by Jared Murphy (14 points) -- a sharp mark that gave them a 39-31 lead headed into the break. They went just 1 for 8 over the final 16 minutes, and relied on penetration from Devane and Neumann to set up their points from the foul line.
Still, with a hot start like that, Harp will take it.
"Our goal is to make the shots when we take them," Harp said. "We knew we'd get some opportunities from the three-point line, but that's part of what opens up our strong slashers getting to the basket, is to extend them out to the three-point line. I knew we were shooting it well -- 8 of 10 is a good start -- it's nice, but maybe next time we'll go 9 of 10. "