INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. - Add Silver Stage to the list of top-tier Division III basketball teams that stand in the Highlanders' playoff path.
The Incline boys learned first hand that the Nighthawks and their 5-0 record were for real Tuesday night, as a big, skilled Silver Stage team wore down the hosts en route to a 78-63 crossover win.
"It was a great game. Silver Stage is a good basketball team," said first-year Incline head coach Tim Kelly. "They're definitely a team we're going to have to get through if we want to win our division."
Incline, outsized across the board against the tall and athletic Silver Stage squad, kept the game tight most of the way with bursts of explosive offense and scrappy defense, including a full-court press that was particularly effective early.
But the Nighthawks figured out the press as the game wore on and began beating the Highlanders regularly with transition layups. By the end of the first half, Silver Stage had turned a 21-19 deficit at the end of the first quarter into a 41-33 lead.
"What it came down to was we gave up way too many layups," Kelly said. "Once we started allowing them to get layups against our press, then we were in trouble. That was one of the breakdowns I was bummed about, because it really is about a four-step sprint to take away a layup. It's that extra little effort that takes away easy shots."
While the Nighthawks' Michael Swope hurt the Highlanders most, using deft post moves and an accurate shot from outside to score a game-high 26 points, he had plenty of support, particularly in the post. Silver Stage guards - when not draining shots from the perimeter - lobbed passes over the heads of Incline defenders and in to their bigs, who had no problem converting.
"They took advantage of us fronting the post, and our help side wasn't rotating quick enough," Kelly said. "When you're trying to guard a 6-4 kid with a hard-working 5-9 kid, you have to play great team defense. And our team defense wasn't what we're capable of doing."
The result was five Nighthawks scoring in double-figures, as Dillon Ventress put up 14 points, Shawn Roe and Joey Kellog scored 13 apiece, and Colt Bishop had 12.
The Highlanders proved capable of matching the visitors shot for shot when firing on all cylinders, however. And that was the case early.
After falling behind 7-0 to start the game, Incline stormed back with an 18-10 run to take over the lead late in the first quarter. Sophomore Matt Hanna helped ignite the comeback, as he scored 12 of his team-high 21 points in the opening quarter, including a pair of 3-pointers.
The teams went back and forth in the second quarter, which kept fans on the edge of their seats with five ties and two lead changes. Silver Stage then went on a 7-0 run late in the quarter to create some space entering the half.
"We started beating the press," said Silver Stage head coach Herman Pugh, explaining how his team took over the lead for good. "At first we were panicking when they pressed. But we settled down and started scoring off of it."
Both teams came out cold to start the second half, as the Nighthawks only 10 points to Incline's eight in the third quarter. The fourth quarter was just the opposite, with 49 points scored.
Incline mounted a comeback in the fourth, using a 6-0 run to cut the lead to 54-57 midway through. But Silver Stage continued to beat the press and score in the paint, preventing the Highlanders from gaining any more ground.
Kelly said his team has yet to learn just how hard he expects it to play - for 32 minutes, every game.
"I wish we could have played with the effort I know we're capable of," he said. "We got beat; they outplayed us. I'm not going to take anything away from Silver Stage. I just wish our guys would know how good they are. To beat a really good basketball team you have to play to your capabilities effort-wise."
Junior point guard Orin Porter finished with 17 points and three assists for the Highlanders, while Christian Biscotti grabbed seven rebounds and Hanna had six boards.
"I'm excited to play them (the Nighthawks) again, and I'm not saying that arrogantly," Kelly said. "You have to like a challenge, and they're definitely going to be in the playoffs, and we're going to have to beat them if we want to win our division. So that's exciting."
Incline, now 2-5 overall, is scheduled to host Coleville on Friday at 6 p.m. The JV boys game was canceled.