Defense is carrying Plum to greater heights
Sometimes, after seeing Plum boys basketball scores in the newspaper, friends will call coach Ron Richards and ask him a recurring question: "What did you do, hold the ball?"
Richards just chuckles.
"No, we just didn't play well," Richards says. "We shot 24 percent from the field, and we took 52 shots. We definitely didn't hold the ball."
In that instance, Richards was referring to the rematch with Franklin Regional last Friday, which Plum won, 38-29, to extend its winning streak to 11 games — a streak that has since been broken.
Richards was more concerned with the 29 points Plum allowed.
For Plum, it's not about playing keep-away, it's about forcing other teams to make mistakes. The Mustangs' defense has been exceptional, especially against teams that appear to have an edge on them offensively.
"We know we're not the prettiest team out there," Richards said. "But our kids know what can happen if they play defense like they can."
Plum (13-3), ranked No. 3 in WPIAL Class AAAA by the Tribune-Review News Service at the start of the week, has held nine teams to 40 or fewer points.
Its points-allowed average of 42.2 per game leads Class AAAA.
The Mustangs can clinch a playoff berth with a win tonight at McKeesport.
"Defense is the way to go," Plum senior forward Neal McKown said. "Defense is what wins games."
Plum's losses are against Indiana (40-38), Franklin Regional (72-69) — in the teams' first meeting of the season — and Latrobe (51-43).
The Franklin Regional defeat, Richards thinks, could have been avoided had Plum controlled the tempo better. Simply stated, the Mustangs are at their best when they dictate the flow of the game.
"Franklin put up 72 against us," Richards said. "We talked about that, and ever since, we've been playing better. We can't get into a game that's up-and-down like that."
In one game this season, Richards had Plum go to full-court pressure. It didn't last.
The Mustangs appear to be built for halfcourt defense.
"We extended out one time," Richards said. "It was a bonehead move on my part. (The other team) made three passes and hit a layup. We went back to halfcourt."
Plum's defense isn't smoke and mirrors. It's basic, in-your-face, halfcourt pressure.
Man to man. Chest to chest.
But it takes patience — and stamina — to play that way.
Richards' practices aren't all scrimmaging and foul shooting. His players run, practically nonstop.
For fun, they run some more.
"Defense isn't easy," McKown said. "When I was a freshman, I was taken to a level of complete physical and mental exhaustion. There were times after practice when I couldn't spell my name if you asked."
Richards is back for his second coaching stint at Plum after taking two years off.
McKown, the only player remaining from the original regime, loves Richards' style.
"Now, I'm addicted to these practices," McKown said. "Sometimes, I can't believed I finished some of them.
"The thing for us is to not worry about what people think about us; just go out and play. We're having a blast doing that."