The Hannibal boys basketball team has turned it up a notch defensively to win seven straight North Central Missouri Conference games.
Marty Hull starred for West Pike in the 1990s as one of the premier scorers in the state of Illinois, netting 2,000 points during his high school career.
To say Hull was an offensive-minded player would be a fair assessment.
“If anybody knew me growing up, defense wasn't always my forte,” he admitted.
Yet Hull, the first-year head coach at Hannibal, has led the Pirates to seven straight North Central Missouri Conference victories with a focus on the defensive end of the floor.
Hannibal is 12-8 overall and has won seven of its past eight games entering conference matchups at Moberly on Friday night and Marshall on Saturday afternoon. The Pirates are in possession of second place in the NCMC at 7-1, trailing only undefeated Fulton.
Hannibal held Boonville 21 points below its season average in a 62-39 win on Tuesday.
“There are days we don't even do anything offensively because I want to hang our hat on the defensive end of the floor,” Hull said of practices. “Over the years, you realize how important defense is.”
At first glance, Hannibal's offense is what stands out on paper.
The Pirates have reliably scored 60 or more points every game since Jan. 4.
Junior playmaker Dezi Jones has dazzled for 29 points per game this season on 54 percent shooting from the field.
“Dezi is tough to guard, no matter who you are,” senior Wyatt Waelder said. “You could be one of the best defenders in this conference, and he's still going to be a tough guy to guard night in and night out.”
Jones erupted for 47 points Jan. 19 during a home win against Marshall to set the single-game school record and is 24 short of breaking the Pirates season mark of 602.
You may be surprised, however, as to what Jones credits as the reason behind the Pirates strong start in conference.
“Defense is the main part of the game and how we're going to win,” Jones said. “Coach works us hard, especially on defense. He gets onto us when we're not doing the right thing. We focus on defense a lot, but it's going to help us win.”
Perhaps no player has proven more valuable to the Pirates on defense than Waelder, who regularly is tasked with guarding the opposing team's top offensive threat man-to-man.
Waelder held Kirksville's dynamic standout Austin Penick to just two field goals in the second half and 16 total points during a 69-53 road victory last Friday.
“He's very valuable,” Jones said of Waelder, who averages 10 points and five rebounds. “He's the best defender on the team, so he guards their best player and shuts them down. We get defensive stops that lead to offense.”
John Trenhaile and Adreke Brumbaugh have clogged the lane for the Pirates, combining to average nine points and nine rebounds while knocking down more than half their field-goal attempts.
Preston Bennett, Hannibal's point guard, has come into his own from deep range. The sophomore drained 10 3-pointers in three games to help the Pirates win the consolation title at the Fort Zumwalt North Tournament in January.
Bennett has averaged nine points and three assists per contest this winter as a nice complement to Jones.
“When Dezi can just score whenever he wants, you can kind of just sit back and watch,” Bennett said. “But when people close in, I'm right outside and he's great at noticing when I'm open. He sees me on the outside and I can get a wide open shot.”
Bennett mentioned the Pirates offense is at its best when it flows straight out of the defense.
“Defense, that's where we have to win the game,” Bennett said. “We're not that big of a team, but we hustle, dive for loose balls and when we get deep we have good help-side defense. Without the defense, our offense wouldn't be what it is.”
Hannibal is a week away from a game at Fulton next Friday that presents the Pirates a chance to avenge a 59-51 loss to the Hornets on Dec. 5 in the conference opener.
If the Pirates win both their games this weekend, they would be playing next Friday for at least a share of the top spot in the conference standings.
“It's a great spot to be,” Jones said. “We're second, and our goal is to win conference. We've got to keep winning these conference games and then beat Fulton. It's very important to focus on one game at a game. If you're focused on a different game, you're not going to be focused on the game that we're doing and it's just going to mess up everything.”
Hannibal's improved man-to-man defense has provided the means to contend a season after finishing 8-17.
“Earlier in the year, our man-to-man defense wasn't that good, but it was also brand new to them with different terminology,” Hull noted. “Buying into it is half of it when you start to see results. We're really starting to peak and play well defensively.”