Don’t look now, but the Wildcat boys basketball team has already reached a milestone its 2017-18 predecessor couldn’t — the elusive sixth win. A young Maquoketa Valley (6-2) squad that came in with a lot of uncertainties has already exceeded expectations thanks to the emergence of previously unproven talent at all grade levels.
Following a loss to Tri-Rivers Conference leader, North Linn, the Wildcats came back last week for a pair of road wins against Central Elkador squad and Central City before dropping their third game to Alburnett, at home.
Things didn’t start out too peachy in the week’s first contest, Dec. 17. The Wildcats opened the night by scoring just six points in the first half to Elkader’s 14. By halftime, the Warriors had extended that to a 27-17 lead. MV came out of the half with a brand new look, however, and went on a 31-16 run to steal the victory, 48-43.
“This win said a lot about the character of our team,” head coach Eric Conner said of his Wildcats. “We have been in this situation multiple times this season and we just seem to keep fighting through early game deficits to overcome them. We could have easily hung our heads at halftime, being down, but we came out fighting in the second half, and I am extremely proud of our efforts.”
Senior Brian Heims led the efforts with 18 points and 11 rebounds. Freshman AJ Ambundo (12 points) hit three of six three-point attempts and sophomore Andrew Holtz (10 points) added a team-best nine assists. Senior Blake Becker continued his surge as a utility man with four points, nine rebounds, plus an assist, steal and block.
Central Elkader (1-9) also had three double-digit scorers in sophomores Hazen Loan (12 points), Evan Pensel (11) and senior Andy Seeland (11), but those efforts were not enough to prevent the Warriors’ fate.
The next day, the Wildcats traveled to Central City (6-3) — who boast the state’s leading scorer in junior Nick Reid. Both squads got off to slow starts, and Maquoketa Valley was holding a slim 19-18 lead heading into the half.
From there, Heims (19 points) led a massive charge from the Wildcats just as Central City began imploding on the other end. MV would outscore the home team Wildcats 30-17 to hold on to a hefty 49-35 victory. For his part, Reid would finish with 25 of those.
“Heading into that game, (Reid) was averaging 35 points per game and we knew that we were going to have to shut him down,” Conner said of the Wildcat gameplan. “It took us a little while to get going offensively, just because we had to focus so much of our energy on the defensive end.”
Conner praised Ambundo’s efforts in defending Reid — even though the freshman would go on to face some foul troubles later on.
“He got into some foul trouble just from being a bit undersized,” Conner said. “After that, we had some key bench players step up when we needed them in Miguel Bojorquez and Owen Mensen. We played great team defense in the second half and took the lead in the late part of the third quarter and never looked back. I was so proud of our guys’ effort on the defensive end in this game and we executed offensively when we needed to.”
Ambundo hit a pair of three-pointers on two attempts, finishing with 11 points and three rebounds. Holtz added 11 points and nine assists. Becker led the team in rebounds for the first time this season with nine, to Heims’ five.
Friday’s 65-30 loss to Alburnett (7-3) was a wakeup call after those two big road appearances. The Pirates lept ahead with a 26-13 lead at halftime before gutting the home team with a 24-12 run in the third quarter.
“I think we really saw the effects of playing four games in six days,” Conner said of the evening. “We just never got into the flow of the game either offensively or defensively. We seemed to struggle to get any shots to fall and some of that may have been from some fatigue.”
Becker still kept his relative productivity up by leading the team in scoring with seven points, as well as one rebound and steal. Heims and Holtz each scored six points, with the former adding four assists and the latter three rebounds.
Through just under half the season, Heims leads the Wildcats with 100 points and 71 rebounds. Holtz’ 52 assists are a team best. Ambundo has hit a team-best 22-of-43 three-point attempts so far this season.