By Teddy Rydquist
Leader Staff Writer
Two days after opening their campaign on February 9 with an overtime victory over the Rochester Falcons, the Oxford Wildcats boys’ basketball team hit the road for the first time on February 11 to battle the Berkley Bears, an Oakland Activities Association (OAA) Blue Division opponent.
A low-scoring first 16 minutes, Oxford was able to take a one-point lead into the halftime break, but Berkley managed to do enough in the second half to win, 54-47, dropping the Wildcats to 1-1.
The lone Oxford player in double-figures, senior guard Mason Mulholland scored a game-high 20 points, with junior guard Alec Brown contributing nine and senior swingman Palmer Speck pitching in six.
Senior Arshad Walker led the Bears with 18 points.
“Missed some wide-open shots to start the game,” head coach Steve Laidlaw said. “Mason (Mulholland) was aggressive, kept us in it.
“Third quarter, we played really well, got up by five, played really well. Pressure, we had two or three guys on the floor who didn’t want to handle the ball. When teams are pressing, you got to want to handle the ball. That was the game.
“We had a mix-up on the defense, thought we were man-to-man, hit a wide-open three because we weren’t guarding them, that was huge.”
Even though he did not appear in the scoring column against Berkley, senior forward Tristan Bennett continued to prove he is one of the Wildcats’ most important players. Making his presence felt with his rebounding effort, he does all the little things that help teams win games, evidenced by him diving on the floor and knocking a loose ball to Brown in the third quarter.
“He plays with a lot of guts, one of our toughest kids,” Laidlaw said of Bennett. “Draws charges, battles, does a tremendous job.
“Alec Brown was awesome today, Tristan (Bennett) was awesome today. Both of them are very small for the positions they play, and they just play it.”
Fortunately, Oxford was presented with a quick turnaround to move on from this loss.
Traveling to Lakeland High School to battle the Eagles, a member of the Lakes Valley Conference, on February 12, the Wildcats did just that, prevailing, 66-60, in overtime.
Once again, Mulholland led the way with 24 points and junior forward Mitch Viviano tallied 15 points and 11 rebounds, his first varsity double-double.
Mulholland has now reached the 20-point threshold in all three games this season.
With the win, Oxford moved back above .500 at 2-1 (0-1 OAA Blue).
To let our great readers of The Oxford Leader know, due to attending the girls’ basketball game the same night, I was unable to gather any postgame quotes from Laidlaw.
The Wildcats returned to the Ian Smith Gymnasium on Tuesday, February 16 to clash with the Troy Athens Red Hawks, another OAA Blue foe. Results were not available in time to make this edition but will be covered in the February 24 issue.
As for the upcoming schedule, Oxford has back-to-back road games, against Rochester at 7 p.m. on Friday, February 19, and the Macomb Area Conference’s (MAC) Romeo Bulldogs at 1 p.m. on Saturday, February 20.
The program’s next home game is Monday, February 22 against the OAA White’s Rochester Adams Highlanders at the standard 7 p.m.
* * *
In their first game of the season, trailing by six points after the first eight minutes, the Oxford Wildcats boys’ basketball team rallied back to defeat the Rochester Falcons, 54-50, in overtime in their season-opener at the Ian Smith Gymnasium on February 9.
A member of the Oakland Activities Association (OAA) Blue Division, the Wildcats were led by senior Mason Mulholland’s 25 points, while junior point guard Alec Brown, who was playing in his first varsity game, added nine, and senior forward Tristan Bennett chipped in eight.
The Falcons, who reside in the OAA Gold Division, received 13 points from junior Matt Stone and 10 from senior Mark Williams II.
Taking a six-point deficit, 22-16, into the halftime break, Oxford was able to change the complexion of the game in the second half by applying some full-court pressure defense and forcing Rochester into turning over the basketball.
Junior Mitch Viviano, also participating in his first varsity contest, provided the Wildcats with some valuable minutes off the bench, finishing as the team’s leading rebounder and tallying seven points, all of which came in the second half and overtime.
Seemingly becoming more comfortable and playing better in each quarter, head coach Steve Laidlaw, a 12-year veteran of his position, knew exactly what to say to his team when they found themselves down early.
“We needed to relax, we needed to run our plays, we weren’t running our plays, we weren’t executing,” he said.
“All we needed to do was keep swinging the ball from side-to-side and we knew we were going to get shots, but we weren’t doing that. Kind of figured out some things to do with Mason (Mulholland), so, that was good. It was just a gutty win.”
Interestingly, Oxford, when they were not applying pressure the length of the floor, utilized a 2-3 zone defense, contrary to the man-to-man the program is known for employing. This decision was made to counteract the youth on the roster and the absence of junior center Bryce Esman, whose status is discussed in the “Injury Report” section below.
“Our guards, though, I thought Alec Brown was awesome,” Laidlaw continued.
“Trent (Brown) and Silas (VonAllmen), they’re going to start playing better and they’re going to start hitting shots. We missed some wide-open threes, we were 2-of-10 at the free throw line in the first half, so, if we would’ve been 8-for-10, it would’ve been tied. We got to get better in those areas, but it was just a gutty win.
“Tristan Bennett, I thought was outstanding in the second half. Mitch Viviano gave us a nice lift coming off the bench, Dylan Stone had a big bucket in the second quarter, Logan (Rozanski) was tough on the glass, we got a lot of good things going.”
Mulholland, one of the team’s three captains, was able to do much of his damage, despite his 5-foot-9 stature, by driving to the rim and not shying away from contact. Seizing the leadership role as the young man the Wildcats turned to when they needed a bucket, 18 of his 25 points came in the game’s final 20 minutes.
“He loves it, he’s always been kind of the go-to guy at lower levels,” Laidlaw shared. “Last year, we were playing with Trey (Townsend), right, and guys were deferring, and we didn’t want him to defer so much.
“So, now, we tell Mason, ‘You got to be aggressive.’ And he is, he’s making some plays.”
Rochester coach Vance Kirkwood, who is in his fourth year at the helm of his program, agreed the full-court pressure played a role in swinging the pendulum in Oxford’s favor.
“We weren’t ready for it, got a little crazy with the ball, a little lazy with the ball, maybe a little nervous,” he said.
“It wasn’t good, it wasn’t what we’re capable of. It wasn’t anything we haven’t seen before, it was just a lack of execution, simple as that. A lack of execution.”
Even though the loss was, obviously, disappointing, Rochester did receive solid backcourt play from junior Armaan Hussaini and senior Brendan Khelifa, in addition to Stone and Williams.
“Those guys played well, those guys played well,” Kirkwood said. “I think (junior) Louis Bowes played well, until he fouled out.”
Bowes, who finished with six points, had three fouls at the halftime break and picked up his fourth just 27 seconds into the third quarter.
“I need those guys on the floor,” Kirkwood continued. “So, we got to work on being disciplined, moving our feet, not reaching, being able to stay on the court. But those guys played well, first game in a very long time, a lot of jitters, a lot of nervousness, a lot of anxiety, a lot of just excited to be out, but we got to hone in way quicker.”
Junior center Bryce Esman, who stands 6-foot-7 and is another one of the team’s captains, broke his right ankle in a practice earlier in February, likely sidelining him for the duration of the season.
The injury occurred when he landed on a teammate’s foot while attempting to pull down a rebound.
Esman was with the team in the bench area for the season-opener, utilizing a walker scooter to keep his right foot elevated.
Boys’ total points (through three games)
Sr. Mason Mulholland 69
Jr. Alec Brown 23
Jr. Mitch Viviano 22
Sr. Palmer Speck 15
Sr. Tristan Bennett 12
Sr. Trent Brown 9
So. Dylan Stone 8
Sr. Silas VonAllmen 7
So. Logan Rozanski 2