Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
The slow start to the season is well in the past–Westtown is playing their best basketball of the year.
An ultra-athletic lineup that features four starters 6-5 and taller presents quite a number of problems for Westtown opponents, many of which were on show as the Moose defeated Shipley 45-34 on Friday evening.
“An open shot is not necessarily an open shot when someone who’s 6-foot-6 is running at you closing out as opposed to someone who’s 6-2,” Westtown coach Seth Berger told CoBL. “So what we try to do is to get teams to take contested jumpers and then run off those contested jumpers.”
That plan worked to perfection against Shipley, as the Gators (4-10, 0-1 Friends League) made just 2-of-18 from three and really struggled to score over the second and third quarters. Westtown (10-8, 3-0) went on a 23-7 run over those 16 minutes behind a dominant performance by junior wing Jared Nickens.
Nickens hit four 3-pointers, including three during a 13-1 second quarter, en route to a game-high 22 points for the 6-6 junior.
The only Gator who scored during that stretch was Monmouth-bound forward Zac Tillman, who would finish with nine points to tie for a team high with sophomore guard Quamier Johnson.
Led by Nickens and American University-bound forward Yilret Yiljep, Westtown has now won eight straight games after starting off the season 2-8.
“We start a kid from Nigeria, a kid from Lithuania, a kid from Senegal and two kids from New Jersey, (and) three of them are new starters. So that kind of chemistry, it takes a while for that group to come together,” Berger said.
A big part of that win streak has been the play of Nickens, who was third in the Friends League in scoring at 14.3 ppg as of Jan. 5.
“I’ve been playing a lot better, just been sharing the ball, communicating, just being a leader, having energy and never getting down on myself,” he said.
He claimed offers from “Penn State, VCU, St. Joe’s, Temple, Providence, Oregon State, Dayton (and) Seton Hall” with interest from Georgetown and Syracuse,” adding he could potentially commit in June but is also considering a summer in EYBL before making his decision before his senior year begins. Temple and Dayton were both in attendance.
“When I’m around my (future) teammates and the coaching staff, I want it to feel like a family. I want a good environment and good academics,” Nickens said.
Nickens certainly projects as a true wing at the next level, with an impressive wingspan and mid-high major ball skills that are still developing. He also showed a good basketball IQ, pulling up on the fast break if no opportunity presented itself and a patience with the ball when trying to get into the lane.
“I think he has a chance to play at the highest levels,” Berger said. “He is changing from being a specialist who’s just a shooter to an all-around player. He can really dribble, he can really pass, he’s starting to understand how he can impact the game on the defensive side. He’s 6-6 but has 6-10 ¾ inch wingspan. So he is starting to understand how much he can rebound the basketball on both ends of the floor–and those are easy points.”
That ability to rebound is something the entire team is still developing aside from Yiljep, a 6-7 forward with a nose for the glass. According to Berger, that aggressiveness on the boards is rubbing off not only on Nickens, but on promising 6-6 sophomore Pierre Sarr (four points vs. Shipley), a raw talent who’s certainly got D-I potential.
“Pierre doesn’t understand yet how to move without the basketball. When he starts to cut to the basket without the ball, then it’s a wrap. Right now everything he wants to do is with the ball,” Berger said. “I’ve had a bunch of low D-Is and mids in the gym, they’re all like ‘okay let’s see where he ends up.’ I don’t know if he’s going to be a low, a mid or a high. It’s too early to tell.”
The win did come with a prince, as Yiljep was forced to leave the game early with a hyperextended toe after an eight-point, eight-rebound performance.
“Could be a day-to-day injury, could be a season injury. won’t know for a couple of days,” Berger said.