The reasons seem obvious why the Mifflinburg boys basketball fortunes changed a little over two weeks ago.
Junior guard Isaiah Valentine — injured in the first game against Lewisburg — returned to the lineup on Jan. 20, and the Wildcats have been on a 9-1 run since that point — losing only to Montoursville in Valentine’s first game back.
The simplistic answer is Valentine — who scored 12 points against the Warriors and didn’t score fewer than 22 points in the next six games — has given Mifflinburg an incredible offensive lift.
However, coach Andre Roupp said after the Wildcats upset Shamokin, 70-66, on the road Wednesday night that it was more than the scoring lift that’s been a boon for the Wildcats.
“It’s the rebounds, the defense and the kids just rally around him,” Roupp said.
“Our confidence is through the roof right now,” senior Dante Colon said. “I think the flow to our game is a lot better with Isaiah.”
With Valentine back, it gives the Wildcats the team they envisioned at the beginning of the season. They envisioned a team to compete with Shamokin and Danville in Heartland Athletic Conference-Division I, and, along with the aforementioned teams, compete with Montoursville for a District 4 Class 4A title.
Those hopes obviously took a big hit when Valentine went down, but it turned into a blessing in disguise. Players such as Colon and Jake Young had to take on bigger offensive roles without Valentine.
Valentine didn’t score much in the second and third quarters Wednesday, and the Wildcats still played with league-leading Shamokin, so when Valentine exploded for eight straight points late in the third quarter, it turned a close game into a 10-point Mifflinburg lead.
Then when Valentine fouled out, Mifflinburg held off a Shamokin rally to close out the victory. It was affirmation that all of the lessons of the early season — with six of the 10 losses being by fewer than 10 points — would pay off in the end.
Those games were tough for Valentine to watch from the bench. The junior broke his left wrist just two minutes into Mifflinburg’s opener with Lewisburg on Dec. 10.
“It was a big obstacle to get back. I did a lot of rehab to get back (this season),” Valentine said. “I really wanted to get back with my team and really help them to win.”
Though the offensive improvement is obvious, Valentine’s return is huge on the defensive side of the ball. It gives Mifflinburg three long, lean, quick defenders — Valentine, Colon and Dylan Doebler — to play man-to-man on the perimeter.
The defensive difference showed against the Indians. With Valentine and Colon on the perimeter, that allowed Roupp to put Doebler on Shamokin’s leading scorer Joe Masser. Though Masser scored 15 points, Doebler limited him to just four field goals. He also took away Masser’s favorite part of his game — beating a slower forward off the dribble.
“We’ve been really expecting a lot from Dylan on the defensive end. He can guard on the perimeter, and his length and his jump ability help a lot inside,” Roupp said. “The last four games — he hasn’t been scoring a ton — but his defensive effort and production and results have been huge for us.”
Now the Wildcats hope to keep the streak going tonight when they host Danville. Mifflinburg also has a chance to keep the Ironmen from the outright HAC-I title. The Wildcats gave Danville the chance of being solo champion by virtue of Mifflinburg’s win over Shamokin.