Mankato East senior Damani Hayes goes up for two of his 22 points against Orono on Saturday. The Cougars defeated the Spartans 65-55. Photo by Jeff Lawler, SportsEngine
No one needs to remind Mankato East how it finished last season. The Cougars were well aware they were a .500 team.
Still, that hasn’t dampened their confidence this season. And while they’re aware they still need to improve, a versatile and hungry lineup is still unbeaten as the second half of the season begins.
The latest triumph for Mankato East, ranked seventh in Class 3A by Minnesota Basketball News, was a 65-55 road win at No. 6-3A Orono on Saturday. That comes on the heels of a win over Big 9 Conference rival Rochester John Marshall, a team ranked in Class 4A.
While the first eight games of the year weren’t against notable opponents, the schedule increased exponentially in difficulty this week.
“They’re playing with a lot of confidence, but they’re humble about it,” Cougars coach Joe Madson said. “I remind them of that. The fact is, we were 14-14 last year; we didn’t win a section title last year. We’ve got a lot to prove. We’ve got to do it every night.”
The task Saturday was to contain Orono and its 6-foot-8 standout Jarvis Omersa. The athletic forward is a University of Minnesota signee, but with the Cougar bigs all willing to guard him in man defense, Mankato East held Omersa to 14 points.
Defense was the focus, and that was evident in the 19-18 halftime score.
“We always try to stay humble. Every game, we talk about taking the next step,” Mankato East forward Damani Hayes said. “We want to improve every day in practice, right? And every game, we want to improve something in our game. Tonight was a big focus on defense, that was the next step for us. We had to get shooters and we had to take care of an inside presence.”
Hayes had 22 points to lead all scorers, and was in on defending Omersa, along with Edmon Oyet and Uhana Ochan. It’s the versatility of the lineup on both ends of the ball that has the Cougars rolling.
Mankato East has a number of players between 6 feet and 6-foot-4, and they’re all comfortable shooting, driving or posting up — five players had at least seven points against Orono. They’ll all do the dirty work on defense on anyone, guard or forward, as well.
“I think for us, it makes us tough to guard,” Hayes said. “It means the other team can’t focus on one of us and expect to shut us down, right? We have a lot of different players who can shoot the ball, handle it, create for others, and that’s huge on offense.
"Defensively, we’re able to adapt and react way easier because we have a versatile set of guys who can move and contest shots against anybody.”
That versatility is enormous, Madson said.
“We’re able to switch," he added. "Our bigs can guard guards if they need to. That’s huge if you’re playing teams that run lots of ball screens, lots of dribble-drive stuff. That doesn’t mean we do it perfectly every night, we work every day in practice at it.”
The path for the Cougars doesn’t get any easier. Up next is a road game at No. 2-3A Austin, the Big 9’s other unbeaten team. A matchup with section rival and fifth-ranked Marshall also looms.
Right now, the Cougars are just trying to stay humble, even with a current resume that indicates they don’t need to be.
“That’s a bunch of good teams we’re playing, and we just want to show and prove we’re a good team too,” Hayes said. “We have a stretch of great teams coming up, but we want to continue to show that we belong to be up with them.”
Orono senior Jarvis Omersa drives the baseline around Mankato East's Damani Hayes during the second half Saturday afternoon in Orono. The Spartans fell to the Cougars 65-55. Photo by Jeff Lawler, SportsEngine
A Saturday afternoon battle between two top-10 teams in the Minnesota Basketball News Class 3A rankings finished with the visitors taking the victory.
Seventh-ranked Mankato East stayed unbeaten by defeating its second ranked opponent in as many games, going on the road to beat No. 6-3A Orono 65-55.
A big run by the Cougars (10-0) early in the second half got the lead up to as much as 11, before the Spartans cut it to five multiple times in the final five minutes.
Damani Hayes and Joich Gong finished the game at the free-throw line down the stretch to keep the Cougars ahead.
Hayes had 22 points to lead all scorers while also helping limit Orono's Jarvis Omersa to 14 points. The Spartans' standout grabbed a game-high 17 rebounds.
Edmon Oyet had 13 points while Kong Kong had nine and Uhana Ochan added eight for Mankato East (10-0).
Orono (6-4) led 19-18 at halftime, as the defenses dominated the opening period.
The Spartans' Colton Codute had a team-high 20 points, 17 of them coming in the second half. Griffin Sage had 14 points for Orono.
The MN Basketball Hub polls are for entertainment purposes only.