Court intelligence a big reason why No. 3 Hawks have state title aspirations

South Hamilton’s 7-man rotation includes (left to right) Logan Peters, Quinton Grove, Logan Klemp, Conner Hill, Cade Balvanz, Marco Balderas and Cole Berg. DFJ photo/Troy Banning

JEWELL — The Class 2A Substate 7 championship game wasn’t even three minutes old and East Marshall’s Zaine Leedom was making it look easy at the offensive end of the floor.

An uncontested entry pass. One quick move towards the basket and an easy lay-in. It was followed by a crisp pass for an assist and then another bucket from close range.

That vaunted South Hamilton defense was beginning to resemble swiss cheese as East Marshall raced out to an 8-3 lead. Surely a timeout was coming from Hawks’ head coach Nathan Hill; a new plan needed to be put in place to handle the Mustangs’ 6-foot-4 all-state forward.

But the timeout never came. Why? Call it trust, call it respect, call it whatever you want. Hill had a hunch that his players would figure it out and he was right. Leedom got loose a couple more times — once for a two-handed monster dunk — in the first half, but he also turned the ball over four times as the Hawks swarmed him without getting out of position.

And in the second half Leedom was a ghost; just two shot attempts as South Hamilton sent East Marshall to its lowest scoring output of the season in a 52-32 rout. Leedom finished with 12 points, but also seven turnovers. His lanky frame and his athleticism were a concern, but as they had done all season the Hawks made the necessary adjustments, oftentimes on the fly, to seize the upper-hand.

South Hamilton seniors Logan Klemp and Marco Balderas hold the Class 2A state qualifier banner the Hawks were awarded after they handled East Marshall, 52-32, in the Class 2A Substate 7 championship game last Saturday in Nevada. DFJ photo/Troy Banning

So why is third-ranked South Hamilton 24-0 and on its way to the state tournament for the second straight year and third time in the last five seasons? Talent has a lot to do with it, but so does the basketball IQ that the Hawks possess.

Instead of thinking, they simply react. They anticipate. They lean on their experience and vast intelligence when things get wonky. They digest the scouting report and implement the game plan with near perfection.

They’re smart. It’s as simple as that.

Welcome to the Harvard of high school hoops.

“All of us know the game so well,” Logan Peters, the Hawks’ starting forward who averages 12.2 points and 5.5 rebounds per game said. “We’ve been together forever, so we know each other and we know what each person’s tendencies are. We’ve played together pretty much our whole lives and I think that’s what really makes this team special.”

South Hamilton guard Conner Hill (front) blocks out the much bigger Zaine Leedom of East Marshall during last Saturday’s Class 2A substate final in Nevada. Team defense helped to shackle Leedom and send the Hawks on to state. DFJ photo/Troy Banning

Thinking back to that early stretch of the substate final, Hill was quite aware of the fact that his crew was getting gutted by Leedom. But panic never entered the equation. And soon enough the wound was closed for good.

“I probably don’t call timeouts as fast as a lot of coaches do,” Hill said. “To me, it’s still teaching these kids that they have to figure things out and you can’t always be telling them every single thing to do.”

Hill ramped up the challenge at halftime and his players responded. East Marshall put just one point on the board in the third quarter and Zane Johnson, the Mustangs’ other top points producer, finished with just five points on 1 of 5 shooting.

It was your standard in-your-face man-to-man defense that got the job done. The Hawks hedged on screens with precision, they showed off screens, they collapsed when the ball went in the paint and they raced out to get hands in the faces of 3-point shooters.

“I told them at halftime that it’s on your shoulders if you want to take the next step,” Hill said. “I couldn’t be happier with how they played defense in that second half.”

It took the entire team — Peters and fellow starters Marco Balderas, Conner Hill, Cole Berg and Logan Klemp, as well as top reserves Cade Balvanz and Quinton Grove — and that’s how it’s been all winter.

South Hamilton’s players aren’t a rah-rah bunch. They never gripe on the floor. In fact, it’s not often that words are spoken at all. They don’t need to talk. They know the roles of everyone else and there is trust amongst the group.

“That’s a huge key to it, knowing what’s going on,” Conner Hill said. “There are no real weaknesses to our team IQ wise. As long as we’re on the same page, it all works.”

“We all have such a great understanding of the game,” Balderas said.

It’s at the defensive end of the floor where South Hamilton has excelled. This bunch has always been able to score, which is evident by the fact that four players — Peters, Balderas (14.5), Conner Hill (13.2) and Berg (11.2) — average in double figures. Balderas needs just two buckets in Monday’s state quarterfinal against Aplington-Parkersburg to become the seventh 1,000-point scorer in program history, and Conner Hill will make it eight sometime next season barring injury.

Defense is a mindset. And since South Hamilton rarely uses a zone, its man-to-man scheme must be in sync.

“Our constant has been our team defense this year and that’s built our offense in a way,” Conner Hill said. “When (Leedom) got those easy buckets, we just had to slow ourselves down and come together as a whole, and we did that.”

Opposing players have found it frustrating all season. Of the 17 different opponents South Hamilton has faced, only four times has the opposing team’s leading scorer reached or surpassed his scoring average. And the Hawks have done it without getting in trouble; only five times has a player fouled out while playing Nathan Hill’s aggressive scheme.

“We don’t have that big guy in the middle that can come from the weak side and block shots, but we have the speed and quickness,” Nathan Hill said. “We’ve really focused on the hedging and really wreaking havoc before they ever get to the paint.

“We can’t wait for them to come to us. We have to go to them and we have to make sure that we’re hedging hard and showing on hand-offs. It’s got to be a constant and then once they’ve figured that out it just becomes habit.”

Chemistry has plenty to do with it as well. Winning cures all, that’s true, but the team concept has carried South Hamilton through all of the good times and the few bad moments.

“We have a really good team bond,” Klemp said. “That obviously helps out a lot.”

If there are tense moments or poor defensive possessions against Aplington-Parkersburg, expect South Hamilton’s players to lean on their intelligence. All of the game film watched, all of the repetitions in practice, it’s all led up to this.

There may be a better team in the state than South Hamilton. But there won’t be a smarter team. That’s been a strength of this group over the last three months and it will continue to be inside Wells Fargo Arena when the entire state is watching.