Coach Steve Williman hopes the experience of L-B's T.J. Recker (front) and Nathan Hyde will pay off against Van Buren.
First, Liberty-Benton (13-0, 6-0 BVC) boasts an experienced senior-dominated lineup. Second, the Eagles play defense like a boa constrictor handles prey.
Coach Steve Williman's Eagles, Ohio's top-ranked Division III team, are nearly doubling up on their opposition on average, scoring 67.2 points per game and allowing just 34.2 a contest.
That stat alone weighs heavily on the minds of Van Buren coach E.J. Frost and his Knights (14-0, 6-0), who enter the big clash ranked No. 3 in Division IV.
Such stingy play is nothing new at L-B, as the ever meticulous Williman always demands sharp attention to detail and consistent execution of fundamentals from his players.
"This year's team is probably a little bit different than some of the previous teams we've had over the past four or five years," said Williman, who recently earned his 400th career win. "We can extend the floor a little bit more defensively. We've gotten into some full-court pressure, and we have better quickness, which allows us to do that.
"It also allows us to run the floor a little more offensively. We have a number of kids that are capable of scoring and they complement each other very well. Our defensive intensity has improved this year and that has a lot to do with our quickness. That's been a big key for us."
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On the offensive end, fourth-year senior starter Nathan Hyde leads the team in scoring (21.2 points per game) and rebounding (5.2).
"Every year we've won a BVC championship and been successful, we've led this area in defense," Hyde said. "We're giving up in the mid-30s points per game, so that's big for us. Even when we don't shoot the ball well, that defense allows us to win games and stay in games because the other team isn't scoring."
The 6-3 University of Findlay-bound player became the school's career scoring leader with a 21-point effort in last Friday's 72-39 BVC win over Leipsic. Hyde, who has 1,445 points, passed Andy Butler (1,434), who led the Eagles to a 27-0 record and Division IV state championship as a senior in 1995.
Hyde's offensive punch is complemented by T.J. Recker, a 6-0 senior who averages 13.6 points and also points to defense as the key.
"When we really get after it, we can hold teams to 30 points per game," Recker said. "When we do that, it gives us a little bit of breathing room."
Rounding out the starting five are 6-1 senior Brandon Craft (6.2 points), 5-11 senior Pat Wallace (5.3) and 6-0 freshman point guard Aaron Craft (9.2), who also leads the BVC in assists at 6.9 per game.
The younger Craft also quarterbacked L-B to the Division V state football semifinals in the fall.
The Eagles have dutifully paid attention to each week's opponent, but admit they've had Van Buren on their minds for quite a while.
"We've seen each other's scores and know we've been undefeated," Hyde said. "You try to take it one week at a time, but the past couple weeks it's been hard not to think about it because everyone in the community is talking about it.
"We're excited and we're getting focused. It's going to be a fun one. This will be our toughest game so far, especially playing on their home floor. It's tough to play there. I remember playing there two years ago. It was sold out and it was packed, and it was so loud that I couldn't even hear the coach on the bench and I was two feet away from him."
Recker has also been peeking ahead.
"Obviously we had Van Buren circled on our calendars because we knew they'd be a very good team," Recker said. "This week is when we're really going to get after it.
"The pressure is huge because this is our one shot to be the lone holders of the BVC championship. We can't let the pressure get to our heads. We have to play as hard as we can and hope that shots fall for us and that our defense is ready for the task."
Williman relishes such opportunities.
"This is what high school basketball is all about," the coach said. "This is why you spend all the time in the summer, and why the kids spend the extra time going to camps and working at open gyms. We've been fortunate over the years to have the opportunity to play in a number of big, meaningful games such as this.
"A lot of our kids have grown up playing in or watching those ballgames.
"Van Buren presents a great challenge for us, but I know our kids will be ready and I know Van Buren will be ready. We look forward to a great basketball game."
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