Eleven-time National Sportswriter of the Year Rick Reilly flew 4,000 miles to watch Jack Taylor play against Wartburg on Wednesday.
Little did the ESPN.com columnist know that Knights coach Dick Peth had a game plan to shut down the super-scorer.
Wartburg held Taylor to three points, 87 below his season average, on 0-of-5 shooting. His only points came at the free throw line, where he was 3-for-6.
But the Knights turned the ball over 30 times and gave up 13 offensive rebounds in an 88-79 loss that drops them to 1-2.
“That dang Coach Peth,” Grinnell head coach David Arsenault said with a smirk. “He’s a wiley character.”
Grinnell is known for its unusual style, tossing up 3-pointer after 3-pointer and pressing with no mercy to speed up the game as they shift in five new players nearly every minute.
Two large banners in Darby Gymnasium proudly display the program’s 17 national scoring titles in the last 19 years.
Taylor made national headlines last year when he set an NCAA record with 138 points in a win against Faith Baptist Bible. After putting up 71 against Finlandia in the Pioneers’ season-opener this year, he tossed in 109 points against Crossroads College — enrollment 150 — in a 173-123 win Sunday.
The performance once again drew national headlines, this time with more criticism for racking up points against a lesser opponent.
Wartburg used double and even triple teams against Taylor to slow him down in front of the ESPN cameras and a packed crowd of 1,343.
“Our length I thought really bothered him,” Peth said. “When he did get by our original defender, we had somebody sitting in the gap to help out. I thought our guys did a great job working on the perimeter defensively.”
What wasn’t there for Taylor was there for Julian Marx. The 5-11 freshman out of Miami was 8-of-12 from the 3-point line and finished with 26 points to lead the Pioneers.
The Knights began the game in a 9-0 hole and it seemed every time they cut into the lead, Marx was there to silence them.
“He got going and got in a rhythm and we could just never shut him down,” Peth said.
Two straight layups from Clay Cook and a Brett Ahlgren jumper cut the Grinnell lead to 17-15 with 11:14 left in the half before a 17-5 Pioneer run in the next 3:22.
Wartburg trailed by as many as 15 but Eddie Diemer’s layup and two Chris Thomas free throws in response to a Marx three gave the Knights momentum as they cut the lead to seven with 37 seconds left in the half.
That momentum quickly went away when Patrick Maher missed a 3-pointer but Tague Zachary cleaned it up at the buzzer to give Grinnell a 52-43 halftime advantage.
“We talk about being disciplined and doing the little things that are gonna make a big difference in the outcome of the game. Just some unforced errors,” Peth said. “The lack of box-outs to give them offensive rebounds. Give them credit for crashing the glass but there’s things that are in our control that if we’re a little better focused, maybe the outcome could have been different.”
Grinnell began the second half on an 18-8 run and although Wartburg battled back while keeping Taylor under wraps, too many untimely turnovers led to their demise.
“We talked at halftime, we had 15 turnovers and had we had 10, potentially we could have had the lead at the half,” Peth said. “Very same thing in the second half. Our inexperience showed at times but I really thought we grew up tonight as well.”
Five Knights were in double figures, led by Diemer and Cook with 13 points apiece, Thomas with 11 and Ahlgren and Nick Webber with 10. Cook also chipped in 12 rebounds.
Taylor said the Wartburg coaches and players were yelling, ‘no field goals’ the whole game but he was OK with not being the go-to guy on this night.
“Their main focus of the game was to not let me get a field goal. For us, that’s OK because we’re focused on winning,” Taylor said. “We’re not just trying to get so many points. We’re trying to win. If they want to hold me in single digits and take a loss, that’s OK by our team.”
The teams combined for 50 fouls and only Marx made more than one 3-pointer for the Pioneers, who shot 43.3 percent from the field. Wartburg shot at a 73.2 percent clip, but put up 19 fewer shots than Grinnell.
Arsenault said there are three strategies his squad sees used against them throughout the season: box-and-one defense, three-quarter court press and four-corners offense. Peth implemented all three.
“In general, when a strategy prevails against us, we see it like wildfire. That type of game is not particularly aesthetically pleasing to my eyes,” Arsenault said. “I’m glad we got away with the win.”
“I’m a traditionalist when it comes to basketball,” Peth said. “I really don’t have any comment on the way they approach things. All the power to them. Everybody has their philosophy and just go with it.”
Reilly chatted with the Wartburg team at Pizza Ranch after the game and tweeted before the game that he wanted airfare back if Taylor didn’t hit 100 points.
That dang Coach Peth.
“I’ve been covering basketball for 36 years and I’ve never heard of numbers like these. I wanted to see if it was possible and then I came and realized it was all a fake. That kid scored three points. I don’t know who has been scoring these hundreds of points,” Reilly joked. “I think maybe I got took.”
Jack Taylor has 3 points tonight here in Grinnell. Then again, he's been doubled and tripled all game. Anybody got any other column ideas?
— Rick Reilly (@ReillyRick) November 21, 2013
— Brett Ahlgren (@Brett_Ahlgren_1) November 21, 2013
Diemer 5-5 3-5 13, Thomas 3-5 5-6 11, Perkins 3-4 0-0 7, Boyd 2-2 1-2 5, Cannon 2-5 0-0 4, Cook 6-7 1-2 13, Webber 4-6 1-2 10, Ahlgren 3-5 4-4 10, Van Groningen 1-1 2-2 4, Treibel 1-1 0-0 2, Kramer 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 30-41 17-23 79.
Yeager 7-12 2-2 17, Zachary 2-7 2-2 7, Taylor 0-5 3-6 3, LeMoine 1-2 0-1 2, Olson 0-1 0-0 0, Marx 8-12 2-2 26, Maher 5-8 4-4 15, Levin 1-3 3-3 5, Parker 0-4 4-5 4, Curta 1-4 0-0 3, Johnson 0-1 2-4 2, Hoegh 0-0 2-4 2, Page 1-1 0-0 2, Porter 0-0 0-0 0, Bartuch 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 26-60 24-33 88.
Halftime: Grinnell 52, Wartburg 43. 3-Point Goals: Wartburg 2-5 (Perkins 1-1, Webber 1-3, Cannon 0-1), Grinnell 12-38 (Marx 8-12, Curta 1-3, Maher 1-4, Yeager 1-4, Zachary 1-5, Olson 0-1, Johnson 0-1, Levin 0-2, Parker 0-3, Taylor 0-3). Rebounds: Wartburg 36 (Cook 12), Grinnell 19 (Zachary, Hoegh 4). Assists: Wartburg 12 (Cannon 4), Grinnell 13 (Yeager 4). Turnovers: Wartburg 30 (Cannon, Perkins 4), Grinnell 10 (Yeager 3). Total Fouls: Wartburg 27, Grinnell 23.