Hornets try to get act together, starting tonight vs. Helias

There’s no panic right now in the camp of the Fulton Hornets basketball team. Just 13 games in, there is ample time to attain the goals of the season — a North Central Missouri Conference championship followed by a district title.

But don’t be mistaken. While first-year head coach Marques Baldwin thinks his team is capable of getting to where it wants to go, he doesn’t believe the Hornets are ready to take that step. At least not yet.

“I think it would be one thing if we were 5-8, but we’re 8-5,” Baldwin said after Wednesday’s practice at Roger D. Davis Gymnasium. “Nothing is lost for us and we’re still in good position.

“We talked about winning the conference, we talked about being the number one seed in our district and we can still do that, but our big thing right now is making every single day and every single play the most important day and important play.”

A reccurring theme for Fulton is an inability to play its style from the first whistle to the final buzzer. The Hornets have been good in spurts. Quarters, halves and even two-minute segments seem to work just fine for the team. But never a full 32 minutes.

That’s been Fulton’s nagging issue over the last five games. The Hornets are 2-3 during that stretch, which began with a 56-44 home loss to Eldon on Dec. 21. A 15-point conference loss to Hannibal followed the holiday break and an overtime setback at Moberly came next.

Last week, Fulton took third place in the California Tournament after losing to Southern Boone in the semifinals, again in overtime. How does Baldwin explain it?

“We have a group of guys who, while they’ve been on varsity basketball teams, they haven’t had major roles,” Baldwin said. “I think part of it is that you have to have a group of guys who understand how to win before they are capable of doing it.”

The Hornets were just fine through the season’s first seven games. Going into the Eldon contest, their record stood at 6-1, the lone loss coming against Mexico — now ranked No. 4 in Class 4 — in the semifinals of the Montgomery County Tournament.

And while Fulton might not have been blowing out the competition — the average margin of victory was six points — wins were wins.

But the two overtime losses and the inability to show up in the other games has, for now, gotten the attention of Baldwin’s bunch.

“I think those two games (Moberly and Southern Boone) were a wake-up call for us in that we can’t just show up every night,” senior forward Nick Christensen said. “We have to just outwork the other team we’re playing that night and beat them that way because we aren’t that talented.”

The Hornets’ status for district play and perhaps beyond in the postseason will be shaped greatly with how they perform in the next two weeks. Baldwin believes his team is still in good shape and multiple wins in the next two to three weeks will ultimately hurt or help that standing.

It starts with tonight’s game against the Helias Crusaders in Jefferson City (6 p.m.). The Crusaders (7-5) have bested the Hornets in the district championship the past two seasons and are coming off a 70-53 win over Jefferson City on Tuesday night.

Baldwin sees tonight’s matchup as a way to assess his team’s stock going forward.

“Helias is a great measuring stick and a real good team,” Baldwin said. “Are they down from past years? Yes, but I think they are the favorite to win our district until they get knocked off.”

Senior forward Zach Rockers leads the Crusaders in scoring, averaging just under 15 points a game for a team that shoots 44 percent from the field. The Hornets’ defensive focus will be of primary concern against a Helias team that can hit shots.

“Helias is a really good shooting team and I think if we can contest every shot that they take and give them one shot per possession, we’ll have a good chance of winning,” Christensen said.

Plus, there’s pride on the line, particularly for a veteran like Christensen.

“This is a big game, I think, and should decide the number one seed in our district tournament,” he added. “This is a rivalry game for us just because I have never personally beaten Helias and we just don’t like people from Helias here in Fulton.”

With tonight’s clash and the Break Time Shootout showdown against rival Mexico at Mizzou Arena on Jan. 30, there is no time like the present for the Hornets to play up to Baldwin’s expectations.

“Whether you are playing an early, out-of-conference game or a district championship game, you have to play each one like it’s the state championship game,” Baldwin said. “By doing that, you learn to appreciate every single minute you are on the floor and I think our guys are starting to do that.”

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