Down 12 points going into the fourth quarter at Janesville Craig two weeks ago, Madison East exploded for 28 points, 17 of them from sophomore guard Nimrod Hilliard IV's cold-blooded outside shooting. But most of the credit for East's 75-71 overtime win owes to its swarming half-court defense.
"That's our run-and-jump defense," says East coach Rich Cleveland. "The two guys closest to the ball are trapping, the other guys are rotating. And that is chaos because nobody knows where anybody's going to be. They're just jumping the guy with the ball."
This strategy has become East's trademark this season as the Purgolders (17-2, second place in the Big Eight, ranked fifth in the state), have won five games by five points or less. East junior forward Marquis Mason, averaging over 20 points a game, can't explain what triggers his teammates' resilience.
"For some reason, the last quarter of the game we just decide to get to another level of intensity," he says. "We just go after everything, try to get our hands on everything, which is what we should be doing the entire game. We kick it up a notch, I guess."
East's biggest win of the season came at home on Jan. 16, when the Purgolders came back in the fourth quarter for a 53-44 win over Madison Memorial, then ranked number one in the state. Memorial's loss, its only one this season, snapped the team's 81-game conference winning streak.
The Spartans, led by Marquette recruit Jeronne Maymon and Wisconsin recruit Vander Blue, host the rematch Thursday, Feb. 26, at 7:30 p.m. The outcome will determine whether Memorial will have to share the conference championship with East. Good luck getting tickets.