YPSILANTI — After three weeks of workouts, Howell basketball coach Nick Simon admitted to some nerves going into Saturday’s game against Ypsilanti Arbor Prep.
“I think the concern, always, in your first game is that you don’t know what the energy is going to be like,” he said.
As it turned out, Simon didn’t have to worry.
After allowing the Gators (1-2) to score the first basket of the game, the Highlanders scored the next 12 points and never looked back in a 71-59 victory.
“I thought our guys came out with tons of passion and effort early on,” Simon said. “We talked about that a lot, and I thought they provided that the entire game.”
The Highlanders aren’t big, with four guards and 6-5 post Jake Lothamer, but they ran through Arbor Prep screens and past Gators defenders from start to finish.
“We didn’t run much of the set offense we worked on in practice,” said junior Johnny Shields, who was responsible for a lot of the press-breaking by the Highlanders. “We adapted really well as a team and ran what we needed to.”
And, as it turned out, most of it worked. Four Howell players were in double figures, beginning with Sean Samples, while Lothamer was strong in the paint, scoring 18 points and pulling down 18 rebounds, eight on offense.
“I thought we rebounded really well,” Simon said. “We’ve emphasized that a lot this year. There were lapses. When we were playing bad, we didn’t box out well, and when we were boxing out and crashing the boards, that’s when we played well.”
The Highlanders established the 3-pointer early. Dan Zolinski (17 points) scored Howelll’s first points with a 3, followed by a triple from Josh Palo (11 points). When Arbor Prep adjusted, the Highlanders went inside to both Zolinski, who had 14 points in the paint, and Lothamer.
Jump-starting the attack was Johnny Shields, who had nine assists.
He and Palo drove to the basket repeatedly, then fired to an open teammate who often scored. The Highlanders shot 49.2 percent overall, and hit 51.1 percent of their 2-point shots.
“I owe it all to the drives,” Lothamer said of the Howell guards. “They really opened things up in the middle, and none of their back guys were collapsing on defense, so it was an easy layup every single time.”
Lothamer struggled at the free-throw line, hitting just 2 of 7 attempts.
“I have to work better on my free throws,” he said.
Perhaps, but that was the only discordant note struck by the Highlanders, who led 41-32 at the half and whose lead ranged between seven and 16 points in the second half.
“We have to be a little better on turnovers and things like that,” Simon said afterward. “We were a little sloppy, but that’s to be expected. I was happy a guy like Sean Samples had a really nice game like that, with how hard he’s working.”