When the Metea Valley boys basketball team battled at East Aurora in early December and lost, Mustangs coach Bob Vozza talked of the team's inexperience as it stood at below .500 and winless in the Upstate Eight Conference Valley Division after the game.
About eight weeks later Metea is a different team. Instead of a 6-point loss, the Mustangs won 66-63 on Thursday night at home in the rematch with the Tomcats. Metea improved to 13-8 overall and 5-4 in the division.
One of the reasons the Mustangs are 11-4 since the first game with the Tomcats is their attention to defense.
"I think in the second half our defense helped tremendously. I think we came in with good pressure in the third quarter. We need our defense to feed our offense," Vozza said.
East Aurora (4-15, 1-6) shot 60 percent from the field to lead 21-12 after the first quarter and led 31-25 at intermission.
With just less than five minutes left in the third quarter, a putback by the Tomcats' Jonathan Villezcas, a drive through the lane by Delvion Pugh and two free throws from Adrian Smith put the Tomcats up 39-33. However, the Mustangs went on a 13-4 run to close out the period and lead 46-43.
"Coach preached defense at halftime and we were able to lock it down. We got the lead and were able to grind it out," said Metea senior Mark Konkle, who scored a game-high 22 points.
He hit for 9 during the third quarter. Marquell Oliver, who finished with 18, scored seven during that span. Further evidence of Metea's defense were the 5 East Aurora turnovers during the crucial third quarter.
Sophomore Matt Helwig, a recent call-up to the varsity roster, hit his first field goal of the final quarter to give the Mustangs their first 8-point lead of the final eight minutes. He was the third Metea player scoring in double digits with 12. East Aurora was not done yet.
With just more than two minutes left in the game, Smith's putback and follow-up basket about 20 seconds later put his team to within one of the Mustangs at 62-61.
Justin Kuehn sank two free throws with 17.2 seconds left to put Metea back up 64-61. Villezcas put the Tomcats to within 64-63 at the 13.2-seconds mark. But Oliver hit two free throws of his own with just a couple of seconds on the clock to ice the game. Smith led East Aurora with 17 points.
"We're starting to gain our experience and confidence and we'll carry that into the rest of the conference games," Konkle said.
Vozza sees a difference in his team that comes with experience.
"They're working awfully hard. Guys know their roles and they're playing with a lot of confidence," he said.