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Moving in the right direction: Portage has been rolling since adopting an uptempo approach


PORTAGE — It was on the bus ride home from a 29-point loss at Crown Point on Feb. 1 when Portage coach Bryon Clouse decided to make some changes.

“I was miserable, I’m sure the boys were after getting hounded and only scoring 39 points, and we had lost to Kankakee Valley the game before that, so obviously we weren’t moving in the right direction,” Clouse said. “I talked to the assistants and said, ‘Hey, we gotta turn to uptempo.’ We actually had a meeting in the locker room after and wouldn't let them go home yet, and told them this is what you guys wanna do, and this is what I wanna do, and they were all on board.

“I didn’t want them leaving upset to be a part of Portage basketball. We made a pact that night that we were gonna be optimistic about what we could do and lucky enough so far, it’s been pretty good.”

Pushing the pace continued to prove fruitful for host Portage on Friday, as it hit four of its 10 3s in the opening quarter, setting the tone for a historically lopsided night for La Porte, who was pummeled to the tune of 77-27.

“We came out extremely flat,” La Porte coach Jordan Heckard said. “They got off to a great start and we didn’t get to shooters and it felt like everything they put up was going in. We were 2-of-12 from the arc in the first half, certainly not how you draw it up to start. Our energy was zapped. We didn’t have Rylan (Kieszkowski), we’ve had the flu going through the team and that wasn’t the reason we lost, but it certainly didn’t help. It was about a half-dozen other things that led to that.

"It was a really good effort from Portage. They share the ball so well and they just have so many guys that are matchup problems for everybody. They’re bigger than us to begin with and then when we’re down a 6-foot-5 guy, I think that gets amplified a little bit.”

Portage (13-8. 4-3 Duneland Athletic Conference) has won four straight since it has turned up the pace, scoring at least 70-plus points in each of the victories.

“It’s just stupid that just a minor tweak turns everything into all the boys being happier, I’m happier,” Clouse said. “They’re all shooting the damn ball. It’s a good vibe going around. More people are playing, more shots are going up.

"They’re not worried that if I give the ball up that I won’t get a shot because there’s only so many shot attempts. So far, it’s working. We still have a couple games left then the sectionals, but we’re rolling at the right time for sure. We’re putting the ball in the hole and scoring a lot of points and playing good defense. The trapping seems to be causing a lot of problems for teams.”

Portage’s pressure defense forced La Porte into several first quarter turnovers that led to a 27-10 lead after one.

“We have half-court trapping defenses and we’d go to them sporadically and we’ve had the full court stuff in, we put in a full court run-and-jump that we run now after the Crown Point game,” Clouse said. “All the other stuff we’ve had, we just didn’t use it as much as we do now. We just want to try to speed teams up so we can get it back.

“Like I told the boys, it’s hard to run a fast-break system if you’re getting the ball out of the net, you gotta stop somebody at some point. So obviously, that’s kind of helped us too that we can get a few stops and get running and get the ball up the court.”

Six-foot-7 senior Jaelyn Johnson had a first-half double-double for the Indians that included back-to-back possessions in the second quarter where he knocked down a 3-ball and had a putback dunk. Johnson finished with 21 points and 14 rebounds in three quarters of play.

“We have a deal, because he can shoot as you saw, but you gotta get three lay-ups, or three in-close shot attempts, and then you can get your 3,” Clouse said. “I told him when they called a timeout that his last two plays were a 3 and a tip dunk, that’s what you can do. Sometimes he was stubborn and wanted to shoot jumpers and then I yell at him and he’s mad at me and I’m mad at him, but now we got our stuff rolling.”

Michael Wellman scored 13 points for Portage, knocking down three 3s. O’Mari Evans scored 10 with two 3s and had four assists. Sam Wellman made a trio of treys in the third to account for his nine points.

Freshman Carter Kobe had eight points off the bench. Garrett Clark filled up the stat sheet with six points, seven rebounds and five assists.

“Everybody’s sharing it, everybody’s getting shots,” Clouse said. “It happened to be Jaelyn’s night. The other day, Garrett had a night with 17 points and nine assists and that’s great to see different people and everybody knows it could be their night when the chance comes. O’Mari Evans was our player of the game at (South Bend) Adams our first game we did it when we scored 87, then we scored 89, 70, then 77. It’s a nice turnaround from us. I guess the coaches were getting in their damn way there for a while.

With the proverbial lid on the rim, La Porte (10-11, 0-6) found itself down 27 by halftime.

“There might have been eight to 10 3s that we thought were really good looks,” Heckard said. “By no means are we going in at halftime ahead, but if we make five, six of those then we're down 12 and there’s a different feel. I think sometimes it’s a hard lesson to learn, but shots aren’t gonna fall, you still gotta do all the other things. You gotta match energy, cutters were cutting through the paint untouched. No intensity on blockouts. All that led to what the score was. 

“There have been games this year where we’ve had a section where we’ve been real flat. I can’t put my finger on when it’s gonna happen. I feel like since the Lake Central game those are fewer and far between. That’s unfortunately become our M.O., that we are not able to get off to a really good start and that certainly was the case.”

Griffin Ott-Large had eight points and Javelle Broome chipped in six for La Porte, who will host county rival Michigan City on Tuesday in the final conference game of the season. Each comes into the game without a DAC win.

“I think it’s a little bit of a look in the mirror time for everybody,” Heckard said. “Because at this point, teams have choices and what team do we want to be? Do we want to be a team that goes quietly and the season’s over in a couple weeks or do we want to be a team that fights and sees this as, OK, well, we’re going to learn from this and we have to get better.’

“We’ve shown the capacity to play with really, really good teams, but we’ve also shown this side. There’s been a wide range. We just gotta go back to work and we gotta get healthy. We had some guys that were really battling it and one guy at home really battling it. Hopefully it moves through the team quickly, and by Tuesday, we’re close to 100 percent.”

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