The scores might indicate otherwise, but the Licking Heights High School boys basketball team hasn't necessarily been struggling defensively.

The scores might indicate otherwise, but the Licking Heights High School boys basketball team hasn't necessarily been struggling defensively.

The Hornets were 9-2 overall and 5-1 in the MSL-Cardinal Division to share first place with West Jefferson and Grandview before playing Jan. 21 at Fisher Catholic. They were yielding 53 points per game, including 60.3 over their previous six. They gave up an average of 44.2 points over their first five contests, which included a 71-53 win over Grandview on Dec. 16.

The recent six-game stretch was highlighted by losses to West Jefferson (70-58 on Jan. 6) and non-league Big Walnut (63-55 in overtime on Jan. 17).

"I wouldn't say we've let up at the defensive end," said coach Nathan Clark, whose team was ranked 11th in the latest Division II state poll led by Dayton Dunbar. "We've been playing some teams with more size than us, for one thing. Our style of play results in more possessions for both teams, too, and that happens when you pressure (opponents)."

That defensive pressure is paramount to the team's success in the long run, Clark said. The Hornets, who thrive on transition offense, were averaging 66.8 points through 11 games, which included a season-high point total in a 92-54 rout of Berne Union on Jan. 10.

Cameron Tennyson, the team's only senior, was averaging 4.3 steals per game and John Righter was averaging 2.9.

Alex Murphy was the top scorer (14.6 points per game) before the Hornets wrapped up first-round play in the MSL-Cardinal at Fisher Catholic. Darius Strickland was averaging 12.8 points and leading the team in field-goal shooting (55 percent) and rebounding (9.8 per game). Righter was averaging 11.8 points.

Licking Heights will play host to Harvest Prep on Tuesday, Jan. 24, and will play at Grandview on Saturday, Jan. 28. The Warriors, who vacated last season's MSL-Cardinal title because of Ohio High School Athletic Association sanctions, had just one victory before playing the Bobcats on Jan. 20.

"Whereas West Jeff is athletic, Grandview is more fundamental," Clark said. "They have a good inside-out game, and they have some guys who can shoot. They rebound and defend well, too. They don't give up many second and third chances.

"Our guys know (the league title) is in their hands as we start the second half. The big thing is we don't want to overlook anybody, either."

The Bobcats were 7-3 overall and 5-1 in the MSL-Cardinal before playing Harvest Prep. Grandview coach Ray Corbett said his team was overwhelmed when the Hornets raced to a 38-17 lead by halftime in the first game.

"They dictated the tempo beginning to end, and we forced shots when we didn't need to," he said. "Their defense did that to us. We didn't keep our composure and we didn't handle their pressure very well."