About a year ago at this time, the Davenport North boys’ basketball team found its footing under first-year coach Marc Polite and parlayed it into a trip to the state tournament.
After a shaky start to this season, one in which it had limited offseason work because of the COVID-19 pandemic, was paused until mid-December and lost three of its first five games, North seems to be figuring things out again at an opportune time.
Behind four players in double-figure scoring and a defense that forced 18 turnovers, North opened Class 4A substate play Monday night with a convincing 62-43 win over Davenport Central at North High School.
“We’re in a similar boat to last year,” Polite admitted.
“I knew it was going to take us some time. We’ve got some new faces that are playing quality minutes for us and we lost some close games in January, but I think we’re starting to figure it out. We’re developing that chemistry it takes to be a good team.”
North (13-5) advances to play Iowa City Liberty (6-5) in a substate semifinal Friday night in North Liberty. Liberty started the year 5-1, but has lost four of its last five.
North, meanwhile, has reeled off seven straight victories. Other than a six-point triumph over state-ranked Davenport Assumption, the remaining six wins have been by 11 points or more.
“We moved the ball better tonight,” North senior Jayden Houston said after scoring a game-high 20 points and grabbing eight rebounds. “We weren’t playing together as a team as much a month ago.
“Ever since coach came on, our main thing is defense. When we sit and guard, there aren’t a lot of teams that can beat us. We're defending well right now."
The Wildcats turned the Blue Devils’ mistakes into offense.
Houston had 15 of his points in the opening half as North raced to a 32-21 halftime advantage. Mehki Jacobs chipped in 13 points and Quincy Wiseman had nine of his 11 points in the second half. Freshman KJ Lamonte came off the bench to tally 10.
Jacobs hit a 3 to start the third quarter and Central never was able to get the deficit under double figures.
“February, you want to be playing your best basketball and that’s what it is all about,” Wiseman said. “Our ceiling is only getting higher, but we’re playing our best basketball right now.”
When North made the state tournament a year ago, it went on the road to beat Cedar Rapids Prairie in the semifinal round and then clipped state-ranked Dubuque Senior in the substate final.
The Wildcats would have to follow a similar pattern this year with a road game at Liberty. Should North win that, state-ranked Pleasant Valley or Bettendorf would loom in the substate final.
“This is a game group,” Polite said. “We’re starting to raise our level, in practices and games. Hopefully, we can keep it going.”
Central, after starting the season with seven consecutive losses, closed the year with five wins in its last nine games.
The Blue Devils received 14 points apiece from Niiziar Rogers and Kellen Rush.
“Turnovers didn’t help, getting out-hustled didn’t help and getting out-rebounded didn’t help,” Central coach Craig Wurdinger said. “We didn’t move the ball well on offense and our shot selection wasn’t there tonight.
“I was proud of this group in the way they grew this year with all the adversity we’ve been through, no experience back and won five of (eight). I was happy with their behavior, character and attitudes, a very coachable group.”