Happy as Duluth Denfeld boys basketball coach Jeff Nace was Tuesday night, he also was realistic. And even he couldn't dress up his team's 53-44 victory at crosstown rival Duluth East.
"It wasn't a pretty game - trust me," Nace deadpanned through a sly smile.
Then again, he didn't care how it looked. That's because not only did the Hunters win their fifth straight, they swept the season series from the Greyhounds for the first time in ... well, nobody's sure how long it's been.
"This is my 24th year and it hasn't happened since I've been here," Nace said.
Ben Gibson scored a team-high 15 points, Jaden Burse added 12, and the Hunters kept rolling Tuesday. A year after going 11-16, they are 14-6, closing in on the program's first Lake Superior Conference title since 2011-12 and shaping into a formidable contender in Section 7AAA.
A deep and athletic roster put its length on display against East (4-19). The Greyhounds mustered just 12 first-half points, a byproduct of Denfeld closing quickly and contesting would-be open looks, as well as shots simply not falling.
"Our defense leads to our offense, and I think that's something that we finally started figuring out," said Gibson, who helped the Hunters salt away the contest by making 6 of 8 free-throw attempts down the stretch.
Denfeld's Chance Larson chipped in 11 points. The senior gave Denfeld a 21-10 lead after receiving a perfectly placed lob into the lane from Josh Reinertsen, elevating to the rim and dropping the ball through. Larson is listed at 6-foot-6, but says he's actually 6-7. He likes to surprise opponents, he says, with that extra inch.
However tall he is, Larson is a handful, especially for the Greyhounds, who don't have much height. He's put together well, too, and moves deftly for a big guy.
"They're not a tall team, by any means," Gibson said of the Greyhounds. "They play physical, but Chance is really hard to guard."
Isiah Hendrickson nearly shot East back into it in the second half. The junior buried five 3-pointers over the final 18 minutes, including one that brought the Greyhounds, who trailed by as many as 20 points, to within 43-36. It wasn't enough, though, for East.
"We've struggled to put the ball in the hole this year," said Greyhounds coach Rhett McDonald, who turned 31 Tuesday. "The bottom line is we can't score 12 points in one half and shoot 25 percent for the game, and expect to compete."
Hendrickson finished with 15 points to lead East.
With the regular season winding down, Nace likes the way the Hunters are playing. They followed up consecutive losses to Esko and Princeton in late January by defeating four consecutive LSC foes, including Cloquet on Friday, when Joe Cvancara's improbable half-court buzzer-beater snapped a 68-68 tie.
The key, according to the longtime coach, is Denfeld's consistency.
"We talked to them about, 'Hey, you have to get here, get focused and be ready to play. You just can't walk on the floor and turn it on. You have to get yourself ready to play right from the start,' " Nace said. "They've seen what it does for them and they're starting to realize how important that is."
It was crucial Tuesday as the Hunters sprinted out to a big cushion. Burse made it 15-6 on the first of his two 3-pointers, and the senior promptly came up with a steal on the other end. All alone on a fast break, he appeared poised to push the lead to 11, but his dunk attempt was blocked - by the rim.
Other than that, things largely went the Hunters' way.
"We really came to play today," Gibson said. "We've been on a roll lately."
Duluth Denfeld 25-28-53
Duluth East 12-32-44
Duluth Denfeld - Jaden Burse 12, Joe Cvancara 11, Ben Gibson 15, Antonio Mack 1, Chance Larson 11, Josh Reinertsen 3. Totals 18 14-23 53.
3-point goals - Burse 2, Cvancara.
Duluth East - Noah Winesett 8, Niikan Buffalo 5, Anthony Provinzino 4, Josh Johnson 2, Isiah Hendrickson 15, Kaleb Rock 1, Tyler Wapola 4, Oliver Hasler 5. Totals 15 7-11 44.
3-point goals - Hendrickson 5, Wapola, Hasler.