A quick grin answered the question before Chris Duff could.
How much had UW-Eau Claire coach Matt Siverling mentioned defense in practice recently?
“Quite a bit,” Duff said. “We haven’t been defending too well this year.”
That changed once the ball went up Tuesday night. A lock-down defensive effort in the first half, combined with an attack-mode showing from George Diekelman led UW-Eau Claire to a 69-60 victory over UW-Superior in nonconference men’s basketball action on Ken Anderson Court at Zorn Arena.
The Blugolds (3-2) held the Yellowjackets (2-4) to 24 first-half points on 38.5-percent shooting. They packed the paint, were in the gaps and made life difficult on their old assistant coach, UW-Superior interim coach Greg Polkowski.
It was a welcomed sign for a new-look team that had allowed an average of 73 points per game coming in.
“We’ve been giving up way too many points to teams,” Siverling said. “And tonight we came out with some energy and some enthusiasm. To be able to hold a team like that to 24 points, I was really happy with that.”
Diekelman, the 6-foot-3 senior guard, scored 19 points to lead three Blugolds in double figures. Fourteen of those came in the first half, when he got any shot he wanted against the smaller Yellowjackets backcourt. He finished the game 9-for-14 from the floor.
Duff added 17 points and eight rebounds, while Cole Rabedeaux added 11 points.
Another encouraging stat line for the Blugolds was their 9-for-18 shooting from behind the 3-point line. They were shooting just 29.8 percent as a team from 3 in the first four games. Tuesday’s 50-percent showing was a combination of shots finally falling and crisp ball movement.
Duff and Rabedeaux both hit first-half triples off extra passes.
“We have a really unselfish group here,” Diekelman said. “No one really cares who leads the box score. I think if we emphasize making the extra pass, we have enough shooters.”
Shaq Coleman scored 15 points for the Yellowjackets, who are led by Polkowski, Siverling’s right-hand man for the previous two seasons. The return trip to Zorn Arena had been circled on Polkowski’s calendar ever since he was named UW-Superior coach on Sept. 28.
Polkowski’s Yellowjackets picked it up offensively in the second half, shooting 53.8 percent and making a late run to cut the lead to single figures. But they weren’t able to fully dig out of that first-half hole.
“We couldn’t really get our offense going,” Polkowski said. “Some of it was just not making shots. Some of it was they were doing a really good job of taking away the paint on us, where we’ve had a lot of success.”
NOTES: Polkowski isn’t the only Blugolds connection in the Yellowjackets program. Senior guard Nate Kalien is a Chippewa Falls graduate. His older brothers Dustin and Tyson both played for UW-Eau Claire. Nate Kalien started and scored nine points on 4-for-9 shooting in 38 minutes Tuesday. He also had a chase-down block on Diekelman on a first-half fast break. UW-Superior assistant coach Jordan Schneidermann is the brother of former UW-Eau Claire forward Jared Schneidermann. ... With a double-figure lead but the game not completely in hand, Siverling allowed the somewhat inexperienced five of sophomore Sean Miller, junior Kyle McDonald, sophomore Montrell Oliver, freshman Clay Kujawa and junior Steve Christiansen to close it out. That not only gave those players — all reserves, save for Miller — a chance to simulate late-game situations, it allowed the starters to rest. The Blugolds have a busy week, traveling to St. Scholastica on Thursday and are at Wartburg on Saturday. “We wanted to get those guys a chance to get some rest and also see what those other guys could do in crunch time to finish a game,” Siverling said.