MOUNT VERNON – Connor Fisher shot the lights out.
When the Mount Vernon senior swished a corner three to start the fourth quarter of Tuesday night’s season opener vs. Highland, four banks of lights went dark in the high school gym.
He held his hands in the air as he jogged back down the court, shrugging with a grin stretched across his face. The age-old hoops metaphor had turned literal. And why wouldn’t it? It was just that kind of night for the Yellow Jackets.
Mount Vernon began its season 110th season of varsity basketball with a 65-32 win over Highland on Tuesday night. The Yellow Jackets (1-0) were led by junior forward Blake Meyer, who powered in 14 points, and senior wing Evan Boatwright, who recorded 13. Junior Drew Santo led Highland (0-1) in scoring with 11 points, while senior Branton Howard added 10.
“It’s always good in Game 1 to get a win, especially at home,” Mount Vernon head coach Nick Coon said. “You know, Game 1’s are kind of the great unknown of the other team, and also our own team. But I thought our kids responded well.”
The Yellow Jackets did it with defense, as they held Highland to just 12 field goals (including six two-pointers). Mount Vernon used its length and physicality to dominate the paint.
Its size advantage certainly didn't hurt; the Yellow Jackets started four players 6-foot-3 or taller, while Highland had no one taller than 6-foot-2 on its roster.
“They’ve got some length, and that bothers us,” Highland head coach Chris Powell said. “We like to do a lot of back-doors, we like to drive to the basket, we try to get the ball in the paint. And we got some attempts at the rim and a couple fouls, a couple blocked shots, and then just maybe some plays where we weren’t as confident finishing. That’s their length – that’s a credit to them.”
Offensively, the Yellow Jackets pounded the ball inside against the undersized Scots. Meyer had a field day, using his linebacker frame to bully Highland’s younger players on the block. He also benefited from the team’s rapid ball movement, as Mount Vernon’s constant cutting and passing allowed for timely drop-off passes and easy shots around the rim.
“I thought their ball movement was tremendous,” Powell said. “It would’ve been real easy for those guys to go one-on-one and just do their own thing, but they really did a good job of swinging the ball, drive-and-kick, and that caused us some issues. Our close-outs were a little bit soft, so they went by our close-outs and found the extra man and made the extra pass.”
Mount Vernon started hot and never looked back. The Yellow Jackets took a 12-4 lead after Boatwright stole the ball and pitched it ahead to Trey Grohe, who laid it in off the glass. The Jackets led 14-4 after one quarter.
Mount Vernon went on a 9-0 run to begin the second stanza, as sharpshooter Nolan Meier banged in a corner three to make it 23-7. The Jackets continued to wreak havoc defensively, using physical ball pressure to force turnovers in the backcourt. Senior Cory Berg stole the ball near the end of the half and passed it ahead to Spencer Bills, who converted a transition lay-in.
Mount Vernon led 35-13 at halftime.
Not much changed after intermission. The Yellow Jackets kept their defensive intensity and offensive fluidity. They dominated the glass, sometimes corralling two or three offensive rebounds before putting the ball in.
“I think we were active and guys were getting after it,” Coon said. “You know, we missed a lot of shots, so that gave a lot of opportunities for offensive rebounds. But I think when we set our mind to attack the rim, whether it’s off post-ups or dribble-drives, that’s when we were able to kind of take off offensively.”
Mount Vernon not only held a size advantage on Tuesday night – it also held an experience advantage.
The Yellow Jackets had eight seniors on their roster (three started); the Scots, meanwhile, had just one on theirs. They graduated all five starters from last year’s KMAC championship team.
“They’ve got a lot of experience, we don’t have much. So it’s a learning experience for us...” said Powell, who started two freshmen Tuesday night. “This was a huge learning step… It’s just a new experience and it’s a new group of guys, and to me, I’m just really, really proud of how we competed and how we represented our program tonight.”
Highland found some magic offensively late in the game, as Santo drilled two threes in the fourth quarter to shrink the deficit. Still, Mount Vernon was able to counter, as the Yellow Jackets ended the game on a 12-3 run.
Mount Vernon and Highland usually play each other on the first night of the season, and in past years, the games have been close. Last year, the Yellow Jackets needed a late three to beat the Scots in Sparta.
This year was different. Mount Vernon never trailed, and the Jackets outscored Highland each quarter.
Still, Powell believes the experience will help his team down the road. Playing a talented Div. I team on the road is never easy, he said, but it will likely pay dividends once KMAC play begins.
“They are long, athletic and experienced, and they are really good. I don’t know too much about their league, but I told coach, I said if they play like that every night, they’re gonna be at the top of their league come the end of the year…” Powell said.
“We’ve got a couple teams in our league that are gonna have some length, so we’re gonna have to play against that. We’ve got some teams that are gonna guard us really hard. So [playing Mount Vernon] just gives us a chance to really evaluate who we are, what we need, where do we go from here.”
Mount Vernon hopes to build this season on what it started last year. The Yellow Jackets returned just one varsity player last season, but this year, they brought back six. Mount Vernon experienced growing pains last winter, finishing 8-15, but Coon seems optimistic about the team’s ability to improve this season.
Tuesday night was certainly a good way to start.
“For the most part, we defended at a high level, and that was big…” Coon said. “We didn’t shoot the ball from three very well and we didn’t shoot it very well at the free throw line, so to be able to defend and find other ways to score was important for us as the game went on.”