By Brian Paglia
Between half-court shooting contests, shoes sliding across the court and coordinated crowd antics the likes of which are usually reserved for Division I college basketball, Union Grove certainly had reason to believe Friday night its season is building toward something worth watching.
On the court, the Wolverines thoroughly dismantled visiting Ola for a 68-36 victory in a Region 3A-AAAA game, and no phase of the game was neglected.
Union Grove (9-5, 5-2) had lopsided advantages in steals (9-3) and rebounds (33-25). Eight different players made scoring contributions. The Wolverines shared the ball well with eight assists that created fluid fast-break points and efficient half-court sets. No Ola player finished with more than six points, a testament to Union Grove's well-rounded defensive effort.
Indeed, Wolverines coach Russ Atkins found little to complain about afterward.
"I thought it was the best we've played in all phases of the game from start to finish," Atkins said. "We've had games where we played good offensively; we've had games where we've really defended well; but never really together. I thought tonight we did it on both ends of the floor, and that's what we want to do."
Despite its roster's deficiencies -- most notably, its lack of height -- Union Grove finds itself one of several teams capable of coming out on top in a sub-region without one clearly dominant team. Entering Friday, the Wolverines were a game back from Dutchtown for first place and looking forward to playing five of their remaining six regular season games at home.
That's where the crowd comes in. Union Grove's bleachers had little room for lounging. The Wolverines' student section had little room for breathing. Atkins said Friday's game was the third straight with a near-capacity crowd.
Union Grove gives its students great incentives to come. Friday night came with a Hillbilly fashion theme. Five-dollar tickets came with a free white T-shirt that read, "Beat Ola."
At halftime of the girls' game, one student was picked out of the crowd, blind-folded and given 35 seconds to find a randomly-placed hot dog on the court. The crowd was encouraged to help. A young boy took matters into his own hands and led the student to his prize just as the buzzer sounded.
And as the boys game went on, as Union Grove built a 31-11 halftime lead, as Wolverines junior Charles Mann (24 points, 12 rebounds, three assists, two steals) fed teammates for transition lay-ups and ignited the crowd with emphatic dunks, there seemed a clear chemistry between the team and its crowd.
Atkins said he hopes that chemistry becomes an advantage down the stretch of the regular season.
Last year, the Wolverines started the season 9-3, but fell apart with injuries and missed the state tournament. Atkins acknowledged this team is once again one injury away from falling off a precipice, but it's also one that, when healthy, could get Union Grove back to the state tournament.
Maybe a little home-court advantage is all the Wolverines need.
"I really think the team this year interact well with the non-athlete student body," Atkins said. "I think that's why (the crowd) is here. I don't my teams in the past have done that. That's interesting, but I like it. Hopefully we'll keep playing good for them."