MICHIGAN CITY -- It might've been the back-breaking moment for Michigan City's flickering chances Tuesday against Valparaiso.
Struggling offensively, the Wolves crept within five points late in the third quarter when Mason Jones steadied the Vikings ship.
The 6-foot-7 sophomore switched hands to finish at the rim and though he couldn't convert the and-one, he tracked down the carom and flipped the ball to big brother Cooper for a layup and a 39-30 lead heading to the final eight minutes, where the taller visitors pulled away.
"When you see him, you forget he's a 15-year old kid," Valpo coach Barak Coolman said pf Jones after the 55-37 victory. "You look at him, he should be playing JV right now and he's out there. When you see those moments, oh, that's him, then he still sometimes reverts. He has it all in him. We know he's still scratching the surface on some of the things he can do. That's the exciting thing for him. These moments that are big, he rises to the occasion, he's doing that more and more. He's continuing to get in the flow."
Jones notched a couple more fourth-quarter hoops, finishing with 14 points and seven rebounds, as Valpo, often an imposing 6-6, 6-6, 6-7 across the front, proved too tall a task for the Jamie Hodges, Jr.-less Wolves (11-5, 2-3), who lost their third in a row.
"We knew they were faster than us, but we were bigger than them," Mason said. "We had to play tougher than them, and I thought we did. I thought we used Cooper to our advantage. He played a really good game, being big inside for us, opening everything up. I always love playing with him."
The defensive end asserted their verticality the most, holding City to its lowest point total of the season by 11 points with a zone that stretched the wings and squeezed off the paint.
"I thought we did really well defensively," Mason said. "We know they like to shoot 3s so we've got to get a hand up and make sure it's a bad shot. I thought everyone executed very good. The defense definitely got us going on the offensive end. When we finish with the rebound, that also helps."
MC started with a flurry, splashing four first-quarter 3s to jump in front, but labored the rest of the game, making just 3-of-13 treys over the final three quarters.
"Our defense has been our staple this year," Coolman said. "There's no style points in basketball. We are going to defend and grind it out. They started hot. We over-rotated at times and didn't communicate as well. All of a sudden, oh, we forgot where that guy was. They did a good job moving the ball and we didn't move and talk. That was just more a product of the moment and settling down into our normal zone. Don't guard everybody at 30 feet, but the ball's out there, so you've got to make it a contested shot. I think our length affected them, too. We can get our arms up and affect sight but not really be out as far."
Tahari Watson's third of four triples tied the game at 22 early in the third but Valpo methodically took control, using that same height advantage on offense as well.
"We had some long possessions that led to scores," Coolman said. "I think, the first half, we did not play at the pace we wanted to on offense. We just played a little too fast. We had some quick shots. We want to play fast. We're not saying, hey, hold the ball, slow down, walk it up. We want to push it, but we want to take rhythm shots. Michigan City sped us up and we shot some shots not in our rhythm. That's what kind of led to some quick shots, some shots that were not even comfortable even after good possessions. We talked about it at halftime. Offense can come and go, but once we slowed down, doing what we asked them to do, it really started paying off in the second half."
Mason Jones and Clay MacLagan, another 6-6 senior, scored at the rim and Valpo closed the game on a 12-2 surge.
"I think everyone's settling down in their roles. They know what they can do to help the team," Jones said. "I think we're at a good spot for this part of the season, but we can get better for sectionals. I think they will. I think we're going to be even better."
Colton Jones added 11 points and Breece Walls 10 for the Vikings (14-3, 5-0), while Cooper Jones had eight points and eight rebounds.
"We're a very balanced team," Coolman said. "We have five to six guys between seven to 10 points a game. We have a very unselfish group. They're all willing to share and do whatever it takes to help us be our best. They're still learning. They're still teenage boys that make mistakes who are learning to play the game, trying not to put too much pressure on themselves and just have fun."
Watson's 14 points accounted for City's only double-digit production.
"That zone takes up a lot of space," Wolves coach Tom Wells said. "We got good looks, we just shot the ball terribly. We've got some guys right now in their own heads a little bit. We've got to get those guys back. I think we'll do that. I think it will happen. They're too good of players. You don't score 111, 108 because you can't score the basketball. I think it's more the six inches between (the ears). It's normal for teenagers to do that, but we don't ask those kids to be normal very often. A lot of guys are playing really, really hard. We're just a little offensively challenged."
Wells said Hodges (high ankle sprain) is basically day-to-day. He was limited Thursday against Chesterton and hasn't practiced or played since.
"He's coming in, doing his exercises, they're getting him ready to go," Wells said. He's just not feeling right. A lot of people are making that decision; doctors, dads, Jamie, me, mom. I would not have made that call on my own. We were all on the same page. We were also in a little different situation. The Chesterton game, we're still thinking we're playing for a potential Duneland (title). Now it's maybe not the case. There's a lot more going into the decision-making process. It's not just the 24 points a game, it's the six assists, three steals."
Hodges' availability for Friday will depend on whether he can practice and practice well before then.
"I want to say our locker room is still OK," Wells said. "It's harder on the coaches than it is on the kids. They're resilient by nature. They can get rid of it a little quicker than I can. No one's going to feel sorry for us. The worst thing we can do us come in here and start pointing fingers. We just have to keep moving forward. At the end of this stretch, there's still the big prize. We're still going to be a contender for that prize. We've got to live in the present and make sure we're getting better. I'll worry for them."