By Janice Kurbjun
A clean and intense second-half defense won Palisade its 66-51 victory over the Summit Tigers Saturday.
It was a tight game, with the first quarter finishing with a breakaway by Thomas DeBonville, who sunk a layup to put the Tigers (3-12 overall, 3-8 Western Slope) ahead, 15-13.
A run of outside shots from Palisade (9-4 overall, 7-1 Slope) started the second quarter, which saw Tass Crow and Skyler Miller sink three-pointers. A set of field goals from Summit kept the score tied, until Summit went up 22-19 and Palisade missed several attacks.
Summit's lead widened to five points thanks to a basket by Noah Glasco and it seemed Summit would start the second half well in the lead - until Miller sunk a three-pointer with 15 seconds remaining in the second quarter to narrow the Tiger lead to 30-28.
Meanwhile, Summit's effectiveness was somewhat at stake, as Garrett Tousey sat the bench most of the second quarter, having incurred three fouls in the first. In the third quarter, Markeith McDonald started spending more time with his teammates on the bench, also picking up his third foul.
It was also in the third quarter that Palisade took the lead and never looked back.
"The start of the third quarter was the difference. They took off, they kicked the intensity up," Tiger head coach Phil Tronsrue said. "We didn't respond at all. Turned the ball over a couple of times, gave them some easy looks. That was the difference. The final score wasn't indicative because we kept sticking anybody to the line (to try to get the ball back)."
Palisade's eight unanswered points put tahe team enough in the lead that despite a strong effort to recover, Summit was forced to foul the Bulldogs early and often at the tail end of the fourth quarter. At the charity stripe, Palisade shot 15 of 18 - including four drawn from McDonald's technical foul that put him out of the game - to seal the deal.
"To win on the road, you have to make free throws," Palisade head coach Brian Tafel said. "We did a great job of that tonight. We haven't been a great free throw shooting team. We haven't really had a game like this where we're up and they have to foul early. I was proud of everybody. Everybody stepped up and knocked 'em down. That's what ended it for us, but for me, it started with upping our defensive intensity in the third quarter."
At halftime, the coach encouraged his players to step it up, particularly against Tiger point guard Coy Coker, who was shooting well at the start of the game. The Bulldogs did just that: Dial up the defense and tighten up against Coker, which resulted in successful stops. It was also part of the game plan to keep Summit from the free throw line.
"Last Saturday, when they beat Delta here, they were 28 of 34 from the free throw line. I knew that was going to be key coming in, is playing without fouling. We did a great job of that, too."
For the Tigers, it was a disappointing loss.
"We didn't come to the fight when they wanted to fight," Tronsrue said. "I didn't think we attacked the rim nearly as much as we had the past three games. That kept us off the line and we didn't get to shoot free throws and that was a difference-maker too."
Still, the team is playing better than at the start of the season. It's not out of the question to make the playoffs, but upcoming conference games against Steamboat Springs and Rifle will be key wins.
"Delta, Palisade and Eagle Valley are at the top with one loss each," Tronsrue said. "Fourth place is up for grabs."
Tronsrue is confident his team can play with Steamboat Springs - despite a loss before Christmas, he feels his team is playing at a higher level now - and can overcome a recent "funky game" against Rifle. It's Delta who will put up a fight, as they're looking to secure a top spot in the league as the season winds down.