The Davenport North boys basketball team knows all about this close-game thing.
Often in recent years, the Wildcats have been in tight games or led in the fourth quarter only to be done in by cold shooting, missed free throws or turnovers.
Perhaps the Wildcats might be turning the corner as none of those things came into play Thursday night as North knocked off Cedar Rapids Jefferson, 65-58, in its season-opening game at the Wildcats' den.
The free-throw shooting was not necessarily pretty — North went 17-for-29 for the game — but the Wildcats made them when they mattered most in the final two minutes of the close contest. The Wildcats also turned the ball over just three times in the fourth quarter and had no turnovers in the final 1 minute, 49 seconds of the contest.
North gave a preview to the rest of the Mississippi Athletic Conference of what it will be like to try to stop guards VJ Wilmington, Max Taylor and TJ Vesey. Wilmington turned in a game-high 26 points, including 19 in the second half, while Taylor scored 11 of his 19 points in the last two quarters.
Because of their efforts, North was able to turn at 32-27 halftime deficit into a 48-43 advantage by the end of the third quarter. Although the game was close the entire fourth quarter, North never trailed again.
Guards Vesey (eight points) and Corey Prather also made big plays down the stretch for the hosts with rebounds and defensive stops. Prather went 4-for-4 at the foul line in the fourth quarter. The scariest part for future opponents might be that North won without three key seniors. Keenan Hollingshed, Lacey Watson and Jared Beck are out because of injuries or other reasons.
It added up to put a smile on the face of Wildcats coach Joe Ewen, who has seen too many games where his team played hard enough to win but came up short on the scoreboard.
"We had a lot of guys come in and do a great job, playing defense and grabbing rebounds," Ewen said. "We had guys step up in places that won't show up on the stat sheet, but that's alright. We have a lot of guys that have played a lot of minutes here, and that maturity is starting to show. We had seven games (decided) by eight points or less last year. Tonight, you saw composure and poise, and we found a way to win. Hopefully, that continues."
The Wildcats' aggressive drives to the basket forced Jefferson (0-1) into 14 first-half fouls. North only went 10-of-17 from the line in the first half, but it helped offset a 30 percent shooting performance from the floor.
Offense was not necessarily the problem for the hosts. It was defense and rebounding. Many times the J-Hawks were able to get clean looks at the basket or grab second chances off rebounds. Jefferson out-rebounded North 21-14 in the first half, including grabbing nine offensive boards. This led to 10 second-chance points.
Ewen got after his team to step up the intensity in the second half, and the Wildcats closed off those open looks and evened up the rebounding total.
"We challenged them a bit at halftime, and they responded," Ewen said of his defense. "We hustled and won some loose balls in key spots."
Wilmington and Taylor were nearly unstoppable in the third quarter as each player scored 10 points to push North into the lead. Many times, the duo beat double teams off the dribble to get their own shots. Wilmington even had eight points off his own misses near the basket when he simply went back up and tipped in his own miss. Wilmington finished with 10 rebounds for the game.
"I was actually more proud of my rebounding than my scoring," Wilmington said. "We've been together for so long that we are used to being in these situations and knowing our chemistry is good. I still think I played kind of rough, but it feels great to win."
Jefferson was within 62-57 with 1:02 left in the contest after a basket by Willie Guy III. But Alec Seifert had a free throw, and Prather made a pair of foul shots followed by another make by Wilmington to help seal the game. North's defense also forced the visitors to miss their final six shots of the game when the J-Hawks were scrambling for points.
Osborne Meiborg led Jefferson with 14 points while Guy added another 11 points. Ryan Blum scored nine points to go with nine rebounds.