The Licking Heights High School boys basketball team was 1-4 in its first five games decided by eight points or fewer.
The Hornets' struggle to win close games stems from a myriad reasons, according to coach Nathan Clark, whose team was 3-5 overall and 2-4 in the LCL before playing Licking Valley on Jan. 3.
"We've been outscored at the free-throw line in several of those losses," he said. "We're not attacking the basket or getting all the way to the basket when we are driving. We lack height, so we have trouble getting the ball inside where you get fouled. In some games, we've had to foul down the stretch to get back in the game.
"We've had different guys step up to be a second scorer behind Babe Murphy, but we haven't gotten a third scorer in the 10-point range. We need Babe to get his points and we need two others somewhere near 10 points. It doesn't always have to be the same guy, but we need a third option and some consistency around Babe."
The Hornets won their first two games before losing three in a row. They fell to Lakewood 51-44 on Dec. 10, to Heath 64-56 on Dec. 13 and to Newark Catholic 60-58 on Dec. 17 before snapping the skid with a 53-49 win at Watkins Memorial on Dec. 20.
But a 59-56 loss to Granville on Dec. 21 and a 77-57 loss to Westerville North on Dec. 28 followed.
"We had a shot to tie Granville at the buzzer and it hit the back rim," Clark said. "We lost that one with a terrible third quarter when we fell behind by 11 points. In the game against Westerville North, which is a very good team, we were down by eight points with around three minutes left and ran out of firepower and they pulled away. We've been competitive in every game."
The loss to Newark Catholic came on a tip-in at the buzzer, as the Hornets' first four league losses were by a combined 20 points.
Murphy was averaging 23.1 points through eight contests. The team's expected second-leading scorer and best on-ball defender, DeAnthony Hosley, suffered a knee injury during a 64-34 win over Utica on Dec. 3. The senior guard had surgery and is out for the season.
"We've got some young guys trying to fill in and give us some perimeter shooting and Babe is a willing passer who drives the lane and kicks it back out for open jumpers," Clark said. "They're making the shots in practice, but not in the games.
"It's a trial-by-fire situation that can only be remedied with varsity reps. They've got to shoot it in rhythm and with confidence and stop thinking. We've seen it in flashes during games, but we need that regularly."
Clark said senior forwards Douglas Benniefield and Aaron Tiller have done a good job of getting hustle points around the basket to provide a second scoring option. He also has been pleased with the defensive play of senior guard Martell Davis.
Benniefield scored 12 points against Watkins Memorial and Murphy scored 17. The Hornets outscored the Warriors 16-7 in the fourth quarter and had a 17-8 scoring advantage at the free-throw line.
Things going afoul for girls basketball team
The girls basketball team had lost three of four games before playing Johnstown on Jan. 4.
The Hornets were 6-4 overall and 4-3 in the LCL entering that contest. They lost to Licking Valley 59-55 on Dec. 21 and to Utica 78-74 on Dec. 27.
"There's a fine line between playing aggressive and making stupid plays and we're crossing that line," coach Tay Tufts said. "In all of our losses, we have put the opponent on the line at least 35 times. We're reaching on defense, not moving our feet, overextending and gambling too much. We're going to get refocused on defense.
"Obviously, our style of play is pressure defense and forcing turnovers. But we've got to move our feet and be smart about it. We've got to become more disciplined. We had five girls foul out against Utica and finished the game with four on the floor. We had four foul out against Licking Valley."
Senior guard Skyler Ortiz has returned from a shoulder injury and scored 25 points against both Licking Valley and Utica. Licking Valley had a 15-0 advantage from 3-point range and Utica outscored Licking Heights 32-14 at the free-throw line.
Point guard Dameras Whitlock had 21 points against Utica before fouling out. She scored six before fouling out in the first half against Licking Valley.
Wrestling team preps for home invitational
The wrestling team will play host to the Licking Heights Invitational on Friday, Jan. 10, and Saturday, Jan. 11.
The Hornets competed in the Pioneer Invitational on Jan. 4 at Olentangy Orange. They were coming off a seventh-place finish (255 points) behind champion West Jefferson (432) in the 17-team West Jefferson Classic on Dec. 27 and 28.
Sophomore Anthony Haist defeated Watkins Memorial's Alex Lieb 7-2 to win the title at 106 pounds.
Freshman Josiah Harrell lost to Piqua's Hunter Bryant 5-3 in overtime in the final at 152. Also placing second was Mike Hopewell (220), who was pinned by West Jefferson's Carter Harris in 3 minutes, 36 seconds.
Heavyweight A.J. Velasquez finished fourth.