The New Bloomfield Wildcats have finally taken on first-year head coach Tyler Clark's defensive personality.
Clark's notion is that previous New Bloomfield teams viewed defense as a vexing duty that interfered with the more glamorous opportunities that come at the offensive end.
"In my opinion, it seemed like they looked at defense as just something that got in the way of playing offense," Clark said Thursday afternoon while directing his squad's practice in the high school gym. "Whether that's true or not remains to be seen."
The Wildcats (12-16) resume their improbable postseason run with arguably their most demanding defensive task of the season when they confront No. 2 Salisbury (27-1) in a Class 2 quarterfinal at 6 p.m. Saturday at Moberly Area Community College.
New Bloomfield advanced in dramatic fashion, edging Canton 66-64 on senior guard Daniel Berry's tip-in at the buzzer in Wednesday night's sectional game at Hannibal High School. Meanwhile, the Panthers moved on with a 66-50 sectional victory over No. 6 Sacred Heart at Sedalia.
The Wildcats are surrendering an average of 53.5 points during a four-game winning streak, their longest of the season.
Clark noted that his players see it as an affront when they don't live up to their defensive obligations.
"Now they take it personally when people score on them," Clark said. "They take it personally when a teammate doesn't do their job on defense. They look at it as a team concept, and that's what it's all about.
"... Everybody's going to have off nights offensively, but on defense I think we can be consistent. We're working our tails off and it's showing."
Salisbury has assembled a 17-game winning streak since suffering its only loss of the season, 62-53 at Fayette on Jan. 14. The Panthers are putting up 66.6 points per game.
Sophomore guard Zach Wyatt - despite playing with a broken left hand - delivered 18 of his game-high 20 points in the second half Wednesday night as Salisbury closed the game with an 11-0 run.
Wyatt's twin brother, sophomore guard Austin Wyatt, added 16 points and senior guard Austin Springer supplied 15.
"We did enough things right in the first half to stay in the game, and in the second half we did a better job on defense," Panthers head coach Kenny Wyatt - the father of Zach and Austin Wyatt - told the Moberly Monitor-Index.
The 6-foot-2 Austin Wyatt averages a team-high 14.4 points, followed by Springer (14.2), sophomore center Austin Francis (12.4), and the 6-3 Zach Wyatt (11.6). The 6-5 Francis tops Salisbury with 7.3 rebounds and 4.2 blocks per game, while the 6-2 Springer averages team-highs of 5.9 assists and 2.0 steals.
"(The Wyatt brothers) are so composed and they know the game," Clark said. "They've grown up around the game, and so they don't play like sophomores, they don't make the kind of mistakes people normally make at that age.
"... (Francis) is a good-sized kid, has a good, mid-range jump shot, and (Springer) is a penetrator and does a lot of creation for them."
Clark explained that the Wildcats will try to shake the Panthers' rhythm by forcing them to rush through their offensive sets.
"We've got to get them to make bad decisions, I think we've got to contest shots and we've got to limit them to one-shot possessions," Clark said. "That's been our formula for the playoffs; it's nothing magic."
New Bloomfield is averaging 57.5 points to fuel its playoff surge. Berry tallied 12 of his game-high 25 points in the fourth quarter against Canton, while senior guard Aaron Bedsworth connected for 15. Senior forward Trent Crawford was next with 12 points and sophomore forward Greg Bedsworth had 10.
The 6-0 Aaron Bedsworth paces the Wildcats with 18 points per game. The 6-2 Berry - who missed nine games during the regular season with an ankle injury - averages 13 points, followed by 5-9 senior guard Kolby O'Dowd with 11.
Clark expects Salisbury to apply a 1-2-2 zone defense against his squad.
"They'll try to trap out of it; they've got some length," Clark said. "... They've got good size, especially from the guard position, which you don't usually get in this class. It's hard, matchup-wise.
"... When you have shooters like we do, it's easy for them to just dribble up and want to take that open shot. I think you have to get teammates touches and you have to work the ball around; you've got to make the defense work and make the defense guard you."
Clark pointed out that his relaxed players aren't rattled by the weight of making a deep playoff run.
"They're an incredibly loose group," Clark said. "That's been a little bit of an adjustment for me because I'm a pretty business-first kind of guy, I'm very structured. They like to joke around and have a good time before the game.
"It's working for them and I'm not going to try to change them in that regard. When it's time to be focused and time to get ready, they're there."
Berry believes that sidestepping any stress will strengthen New Bloomfield's chances against Salisbury.
"It's absolutely better than being uptight and being shy, ... and not going in there nervous," Berry said. "We have confidence right now and we're playing the best ball we've ever played. It's just a good thing going right now and hopefully we can continue on."
The Wildcats were scheduled to play a regular-season game at Salisbury on Feb. 3, but Mother Nature meddled by dumping a blizzard on the mid-Missouri area. The contest was not made up.
"Scheduling-wise, our conference games took priority and it was just going to be too tough to make it work," Clark said. "We just decided to cancel it. ... All things happen for a reason."
Clark is excited about what lies ahead for his squad on Saturday night ... and, possibly, beyond.
"I'm enjoying it; there's no nerves," Clark said. "It's going to be great, it's going to be fun to play. The expectation is for them to win, but our expectation is for us to win and continue to play."
Berry can easily envision a scenario where the Wildcats take another surprising step forward in the postseason, one that would land them in the final four next week at nearby Mizzou Arena in Columbia.
"On any given night, anything's possible," Berry said.