They’ve got options aplenty on the offensive end, but the Highlands Cowboys really got their spark from the defensive end Tuesday night in a 90-70 dismantling of West Texas A&M.
Highlands is 3-0 for the first time in years, and if there havebeen any questions about how dramatically this team has turned things around since Joe Harge took the helm, the Cowboys answered them Tuesday.
Against a team that had outclassed them a year earlier, the Cowboys deliberately defeated the Buffaloes.
And, probably to Harge’s delight, it all began on defense. Employing a consistent man-to-man approach but one equipped to handle switches and come up with well-timed double teams, Highlands forced 14 turnovers and a host of bad shots, holding WTAMU to 36 percent shooting.
“It’s what coach told us from Day One,” said NMHU guard Rashad Peterson. “It all starts with defensive pressure, playing 90 feet ... It’s about playing good team defense — not individual but team defense.”
“We’re putting in a lot of work,” said post Chris Dunn. “We finally put it all together.”
Highlighting the evening, Mindaugas Markevicus torched the Buffs for a season-high 31 points on 10-of-17 shooting, including four three-pointers in five tries. The sharp-shooting wing sometimes had to fight his way to open shots but repeatedly made good on those.
Roman Andrade scored 22, Peterson 12 for NMHU. Dunn added six points to go with a game-high 11 rebounds and two blocked shots.
Highlands slugged it out for a couple minutes with WTAMU but outhustled the Buffs in rebounding and on the defensive end, leading to better shots.
Andrade’s three-pointer at the 18:15 mark gave the Cowboys a 15-8 lead.
Markevicus scored in transition to make it 24-15 with 8:29 left in the first half. A couple of sequences later, good ball rotation led to a Justin Montoya bucket inside. After a defensive stop, Markevicus knocked down a three from the top of the key, and NMHU led 29-17.
The margin would reach 15 points and was 42-29 at halftime.
Not letting up after the break, Highlands built upon its lead. On one sequence, with the margin 17, Markevicus glided across the lane from the left side, caught a pretty lead pass from Andrade, and swished a shot. Andrade’s hustle on the ensuing possession led to a technical foul and two free throws. After he hit them both, Jerard Moret slashed inside for a score and foul. Moret missed the free throw, but Dunn came up with the putback. Then Peterson stole the ball and scored. Shortly thereafter, Markevicus nailed another three. And so, within a couple of minutes of court time, NMHU’s lead grew from 17 to 30, a 64-34 spread.
The Buffs made a 10-0 run to narrow the gap to 79-54 with 8:25 left, but Harge called timeout and quickly slowed the visitors. Dunn’s dunk off a missed baseline jumper by Chris Newsome made the score 83-57.
Kyle Shields and Nick Burns led the Buffs with 11 points apiece; Clint McFall added 10
“West Texas A&M is a tough team,” Dunn said. “This is a big win for us.”
The Buffs beat NMHU by 27 last season.