By Randy Dela Cruz, Ho'okele Sports Editor
Back-to-back defending intramural basketball champions Navy Information Operations Command (NIOC) Hawaii withstood a stiff challenge from 15th Medical Group (15 MDG), but held on to secure their seventh straight victory of the season in a matchup of Red Division teams on March 18 at Hickam Fitness Center, Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.
The champs will try to lock up the number-one seed when they square off against Commander United States Pacific Fleet (COMPACFLT) in the regular-season finale March 25 at Hickam Fitness Center, with the tipoff scheduled for 6 p.m.
While ending the regular season with an unblemished record would be quite an achievement, NIOC assistant coach Chief Yeoman Chris William said that the team is on the lookout for bigger fish to fry.
“Having a perfect record isn’t really a goal,” said William after the team’s 51-42 win over the 15 MDG. “The main goal for us is to make it to the championship round. That’s been our goal since day one and myself and coach Webb [NIOC head coach Senior Chief Cryptologic Technician (Collection) Christopher Webb] just try to make sure that these guys stay focused to keep that championship in sight.”
If NIOC is going to stay on track to win it all, the team will have to do it without the services of six-foot-five-inch behemoth Cryptologic Technician (Collection) 2nd Class Quentin Leathers, who recently transferred out of the command.
Playing without Leathers for the first time proved to be quite a challenge as the team struggled to put away the 15 MDG.
Although NIOC got out to a quick 8-0 start and prevented the 15 MDG from scoring until Airman 1st Class Christopher McCloud threw down a slam-dunk eight minutes into the contest, the defending champs entered halftime clinging to a two-point lead at 21-19.
McCloud tied the game with a basket at the 16:55 mark, but NIOC responded with five straight points before Cryptologic Technician (Networks) 2nd Class Michael Lyles dropped a bomb from beyond the arc to stretch the team’s lead to eight at 29-21.
“It was one of those things that shifted momentum,” William said. “It helped our confidence because for a little bit, we weren’t getting the stops that we needed. But when he (Lyles) knocked down that three-point shot, that raised our energy level to finish the game strong.”
McCloud managed to stage a small comeback by following a basket with a three ball to make it 29-26 at the 11:52 mark.
However, that would prove to be as close as the 15 MDG would get, as NIOC used the rest of the time to pull away and secure the win.
“We just missed shots,” McCloud said about the team’s third loss in a row after winning the first three. “As soon as we started hitting shots, we were back in the game. In the second half, we got four straight turnovers and they started inching away. We have to control the ball. The turnovers are just killing us right now.”
In the absence of Leathers, NIOC forward Cryptologic Technician (Collection) 2nd Class Dykendric Butler picked up the slack under the boards and played a big part in the team’s win over the 15 MDG.
Butler was a force on the boards and came up with nine big points on three baskets and a trey.
“With us not having Leathers, someone had to step up and Butler was the one,” William pointed out. “He scored some points, played great defense and he got the game ball from us today.”
Staying on the road to perfection hasn’t been an easy task for NIOC, which will have to close out the regular season by playing two of the top four teams in the division.
Williams said that while he would have preferred an easier route to the playoffs, NIOC comes ready to play no matter whom they face.
“We don’t take anybody for granted,” he said. “We go into every game knowing that at anytime, any team can beat us. We go into every game with the same intensity and same respect.”