Badgers Basketball handed first loss of the season on the road at Highland

GILBERT — The Tucson Badgers saw their 13-game winning streak this season come to an end on Tuesday night on the road at Highland.

In a fast-paced battle, the Hawks were able to make critical adjustments in going into the third quarter, ultimately allowing them to pull away with the 65-48 win. 

“Highland is well coached and they have a lot of shooters,” Tucson coach Eric Langford said. “I knew they would give us a tough run today, and I knew this was probably one of the top two teams that we’ve played all season.”

“We knew what they were,” Highland coach Todd Fazio said. “I had a lot of concerns with them coming up. [Langford] has done a heck of a job down there growing that program.”

In just his second year as the head coach of the program, there’s been a tremendous amount of growth under his direction on the court. In the 2020-2021 season, the Badgers finished the year 5-9 overall. This season, they’ve already won nearly as many games as they played total last year, nearly eclipsing their wins twice. 

“I really dug in from March all the way until the season,” Langford said. “The kids bought in and they just really understood. Last year was my first year, so it’s tough putting in a new system, and tough for them to believe in me being the third coach in three years. I think they believe now, so that’s the biggest thing.”

An alumnus of Tucson, Langford understands what it means to represent the Badgers and wear the letters across your chest. For him, having pride in the community you represent is a huge factor. 

“My junior and senior year, I tell them all the time I think we lost five or six games,” Langford said. “So until they can wear the pride of Tucson High on their jerseys, we’ll have a good record but like I told them, we could get bounced out in the first round. [They] have to believe in what Tucson High has. Home of the champions. You have to have that pride every day.” 

While the Badgers are already eyeing the playoffs, Tuesday’s game was a phenomenal test featuring what’s to come down the road. 

The game got off to a fast start, with the Badgers knocking down a quick three out of the gate to open things up. In the first quarter alone, senior Isaac Martinez drilled four shots from behind the arc to help Tucson jump out to a 20-15 lead at the end of the first. 

Highland knew a strong second quarter was necessary to help get momentum back in their favor at home, and it’s exactly what the Hawks brought. As both teams started to pick up the level of aggression in their defensive play on the court, things got a little tighter in the second. Going into the half, Mason Knollmiller was able to snag a rebound and get one final shot to fall before the buzzer to cut Tucson’s lead to 33-31. 

Opening up the third, Highland was able to score to set the tone offensively and get the ball of momentum rolling in its favor. The two battled back and forth for the lead for most of the third, with senior Matias Kroese hitting a layup in transition to tie things up at 42 with a minute left. 

However, a quick bucket and two hit free throws gave the Hawks a 46-42 lead going into the fourth quarter. 

“It was more of what we needed to do rather than what they were doing,” Fazio said about the halftime adjustments. “I felt like we didn’t have a sense of urgency keeping guys in front of us… Having a sense of urgency to keep guys out of the lane and to rebound the basketball.”

From there, the Badgers really started to crumble under the defensive adjustments of the Hawks. Taking away the driving lanes to the rim, it forced the Badgers to keep swinging the ball to find an open guy on the outer perimeter to put up a shot. 

“There were times in the second half I don’t think we trusted our offense enough to run through plays, we kinda went one-on-one,” Langford said. “I do give our kids the freedom of doing that, but there’s times they need to back up and call a play also. I try to let them battle through it by themselves.”

By doing so, it also created the opportunity for Highland to come away with a couple of steals in the process, allowing the Hawks to flourish in transition, where coach Fazio says they’re the strongest. 

As the Badgers eye the back half of their schedule, there’s still a lot coach Langford is hoping to polish up before taking the court once more. He knows despite the loss, there’s a lot to take away from this game to help Tucson continue improving and prepare them for the competition they’ll face in the playoffs. 

“I think as a team, though, we’re almost there,” Langford said. “I think we need to trust in each other on the defensive end, and also trust each other on the offensive end. When we want to do stuff by ourselves, it just falls apart.”

The Badgers will have a week to hit the gym and practice for their next game, scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 11 at home against Rincon/University High School. 

Brittany Bowyer is a freelance journalist who started her career as an intern for a small sports website back in 2015. Since then, she’s obtained her master’s degree in Sports Journalism from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at ASU and is in her fourth year of covering various levels of sports across a broad range of platforms in Arizona. You can follow her on twitter @bbowyer07

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