By Will LeBlond
ITHACA – For a program that had hovered around the .500 mark during the regular season the past few years, something had clicked for the Ithaca High School boys basketball team this year.
Heading into play at the end of last week, Ithaca had won 13 games in a row and boasted a 14-1 overall record with just a few games left on the regular season schedule.
Eyebrows were raised immediately when the Little Red opened the season with a convincing 62-48 win over two-time defending Section IV Class AA champion Horseheads. Ithaca learned a hard lesson just three nights later, when it suffered defeat at the hands of Binghamton.
A 13-game winning streak has followed that loss to the Patriots, however, and the Little Red’s “one game at a time” mentality has lifted them to new heights.
“The kids are pretty focused and we’re not really letting the success go to our heads right now,” said Ithaca’s head coach Brian Stone. “We’re staying focused on the task at hand.”
That task: Getting a “W” against each opponent on the schedule, something that’s been accomplished every game since mid-December. While that feat is impressive, the accomplishment has received little recognition at the state level.
Despite having one of the few double-digit winning streaks in New York, Ithaca was not included in the New York State Sportswriters Association Class AA rankings until January 24. And although Ithaca did show up, it was not on the Top 25 list, but instead in the middle of the pack for honorable mention teams.
With a multitude of teams ahead of them in the rankings, the Little Red isn’t letting that affect them, according to junior Jordanny Cuevas-Marte.
“We know we’re a good team,” said Cuevas-Marte. “I can’t really explain it, I just feel like we want it more than others.”
Cuevas-Marte has put up quite the stat line to lead the Little Red, averaging about 20 points and nine rebounds per game. Stone also noted he’s been doing the little things on the court as well.
“If we’ve had 25 charges to this point in the season, he has about 23 of them,” said Stone, who had nothing but praise for the junior.
With Cuevas-Marte as one option, the Little Red has been able to spread the love as well, with multiple players averaging in double figures for points per game. At the end of the day though, the two-way game of the team has been the ultimate driving force in the program’s resurgence to prominence.
“They’ve been unselfish offensively, and defensively we’ve really been getting after our opponents,” said Stone. “We have a lot of depth, so we like to put as much pressure as we can in the full court. It’s nothing fancy, it’s just man-to-man.”
That system has been big in the streak that the team currently enjoys. And while a letdown could have occurred at some point over the past month to end the chain of victories, Cuevas-Marte insisted that the mindset of the team resets every time they touch the floor.
“We just focus on the win, we don’t really think about the streak,” said Cuevas-Marte. “It’s all about winning at the end of the day, that’s what coach said.”
Ithaca’s razor sharp focus has spread throughout the rest of the program. With Stone now in his second stint as head coach of the Little Red, he was able to find some insight on why the team’s level of success has changed this season.
“I think in the past, even the last time I was coaching, offensively, it was just kind of a 1-on-1 show,” said Stone. “We’ve tried to make them understand that with the kids that we have and our talented athletes, that sharing the basketball and making the right pass is very important.”
Consistency with their system of unselfish play will need to continue with the regular season winding down – with one notable hurdle still remains on their schedule.
Corning, a team that the Little Red edged 48-46 back on January 4 in Ithaca’s Bliss Gym, will host Stone’s team on January 31. With larger goals of winning the STAC Championship and a sectional title remaining, Cuevas-Marte noted that the Hawks are their toughest opponent this year in the conference.
After the showdown with the Hawks, IHS will finish its regular season slate on February 3 with a visit to Union-Endicott. And with playoff time near, the team is acutely aware of what they need to do.
“I think they understand what they’ve accomplished to this point,” said Stone. “But I still feel like they have more to accomplish and they feel that as well, so right now, we’re just staying focused on our next game.”