HOLCOMB — Six days removed from winning a state title in football, it would be hard to fault the Holcomb Longhorns if they were a little rusty in the opening basketball game of the season.
Then again, it would be even more fun — and fit Holcomb's style — if the 'Horns picked up on the court where they left off on the field.
And so they did, not missing many beats as they rolled to a 59-45 win over visiting Liberal on Friday night in the season opener on the hardwood.
The Longhorns turned a 13-13 first quarter tie into a five-point halftime lead, which they extended to 15 points for most of the final quarter.
“It was a great effort on our kids’ part,” head coach Chad Novack said, as he watched his team open its defense of its 2016-17 basketball state title with a quality win.
Holcomb and Liberal traded points most of the first 11 minutes of the game. The Redskins took a 26-23 lead with 3:33 to play in the half, before the ‘Horns (namely Trey Gilbert and Kobe Dickson) went on an 8-0 run to carry momentum into the locker room.
They came out of the break much the same as they went in, and took a 44-36 lead at the next break.
Holcomb put things away with a 13-3 run in the fourth, highlighted by a Gilbert steal and breakaway dunk with 3:44 to play.
Gilbert and Dickson led the ‘Horns with 14 points each, followed by Devin Mader’s 12 and Paden Cornelsen’s nine. Holcomb out-rebounded the ‘Skins 29-20, led by Dickson’s eight boards. In contrast, they did lost the turnover battle to Liberal, 17-14.
“We had way too many turnovers,” Novack said, liking under double-digits as a rule. “That’s probably my biggest gripe on the offensive side.”
But his team shot 22 of 38 from the floor, including 4 of 9 from three-point range. Not bad for a team with just four practices behind them.
“Defensively, I thought our kids played their tails off,” he said. “I think early in the first half, we didn’t rebound like we should have, but when you’re guarding a team that shoots a lot of threes, there’s going to be a lot of long rebounds. I don’t think we checked out well on that, but the second half we did a much better job of playing total team defense from the start to finish of the possession.”
The run to end the second quarter was a good indicator of how Holcomb plays, Novack said.
“Credit to our kids. They battled. They’re not in the best shape yet for obvious reasons — and that’s a good problem to have,” he said, referencing the extended football season. “With four days of practice, for these guys to come in against a good Liberal team and compete the way they did and battle the way they did, I’m extremely proud of them."
Holcomb went inside to the 6-foot-9 Dickson, who scored six of his team’s first 13 points.
Zeke Leyva and Mader were able to hit from the outside, burying treys.
Then Gilbert, the football team’s starting quarterback, scored three of Holcomb’s final four field goals to end the half.
Dickson opened the second half with two straight baskets, and Gilbert buried a trey to put his team up, 38-32, and set the ‘Horns on cruise control for the final 12 minutes, holding Liberal to just 13 points in that span.
“We challenged them at halftime to play a complete possession on the defensive side,” Novack said. “Offensively, we challenged them to get the ball inside. If they get it inside, that’s going to open up the outside. The second half we did a great job of working the inside-out.”
At no time did the intensity level drop, either, he added.
“They played hard. That’s something we preach in practice,” he said. “We want to be intense and compete on every single drill. That carries over into the game situations.”
He hopes that carries into next week’s Clarion Classic, during which his team faces three tough challengers, including a showdown with Wichita Collegiate on Saturday.
That stretch will be good for the Longhorns, Novack said. They’ll see a different type of team each night, and it’s the kind of tournament that prepares a team for the postseason.
“If we can defend and rebound like we did tonight, and touch up on taking care of the basketball better — and making free throws (Holcomb was just 11 of 21) — I like the direction we’re going,” Novack said.