By Randy Dela Cruz, Ho'okele Sports Editor
On a night when three undefeated Red Division teams took to the court in an intramural basketball doubleheader at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam Fitness Center, only one team emerged with its perfect record still intact.
The defending base champion, Navy Information Operations Command (NIOC) Hawaii, used their 20-plus man squad to its fullest on March 4 to hold on and defeat 324th Intelligence Squadron (324 IS) Tigers, 42-38, and capture sole possession of first place with a record of 5-0.
NIOC used a tight manto-man defense to run off 13 straight points in the opening minutes of the game, but saw their lead dwindle down to nothing three times in the second half before handing the Tigers their first defeat of the season.
Despite squeaking past the Tigers, NIOC head coach Senior Chief Cryptologic Technician (Collection) Christopher Webb said that he’d gladly take the victory.
“A win is a win for us,” Webb admitted. “This team is different. This is not the team that won two championships. We got different players and as we build the foundation for NIOC, we’re trying to win championship after championship. So we’re getting everybody to play and build that foundation. As we transfer out, the team stays strong.”
While having a huge squad has its benefits, Webb pointed out that sometimes it’s tough to keep consistency with so many players going in and out of the game.
After building a 13-0 lead to start the matchup, Webb said substitutions took NIOC out of sync and allowed the Tigers to creep back into the game.
“We have such a big bench. We try to play everybody,” he stated. “So I have to learn to control the flow of the game to know when to take the starters out and give them a rest. We lost our balance by playing almost 20 players in the first half. Going forward, we’re going to have to cut the rotation.”
Heading toward intermission, NIOC held a nine-point lead, but back-to-back baskets by Senior Airman A.J. Abdul and Tech. Sgt. Tim Harris cut the deficit down to five and 25-20 going into the break.
After the halftime, NIOC increased their lead to eight at 28-20, but Abdul sank a free throw after making a trey to complete a four-point play before Harris finished off a basket-and-one to make it a one-point game at 28-27.
NIOC got a basket from reservist Senior Airman Sean Caddell, but Abdul buried a trey to tie the score at 30-30.
Cryptologic Technician (Collection) 1st Class Ja-mario Thomas put NIOC back out in front by a basket, but the Tigers came back to tie the score again at 34-34 on a putback by Harris.
After a timeout, Caddell flipped in a lay-up to make it 36-34 NIOC, but Harris evened the score on a fast-break lay-up with 1:39 remaining in the game.
With the game in its third deadlock, Thomas stepped into the spotlight one more time and sank a baseline jumper that put NIOC ahead for good.
“He’s coming off of the streets right out of work, he’s tight, but he comes here and gives a big hand,” Webb acknowledged. “He’s one of the leaders on the team.”
Tigers’ head coach Cryptologic Technician (Collection) 3rd Class Ryan Shirley said that even though his team was handed its first lost of the season, he was proud of the way the players battled back from an early deficit.
“We let them get ahead of us early,” he admitted. We put ourselves in a big hole, but I’m proud of the way our guys showed resiliency, fought back and everybody did what they needed to tie the game up.”
Shirley said the loss isn’t a setback and that the team is ready for the next challenge.
“There’s no letdown,” Shirley affirmed. “We fought, got an effort that the team can be proud of and coach can be proud of.”
Webb said although NIOC was severely tested by the Tigers, it won’t be hard to forget this game and move on to the next one.
“We’re not going to worry about a one-point victory or four-point victory,” Webb said. “At the end of the game, did we win? That was successful.”