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After slow start, Philip Barbour is turning heads

by Anthony Hanshew

SPORTS EDITOR

What doesn't kill your season can only make your team stronger.

Plodding through the early portion of its schedule, Philip Barbour was searching for answers after a 1-2 start. The Colts, regional champions just a season ago, were among the less celebrated Big 10 squads during preseason -- primarily due to the loss of all-stater Josh Yeager.

Coach Danny Wagner's team was coming off a narrow loss to league rival Robert C. Byrd prior to its visit to Fairmont Senior. The Colts exited Fairmont on the wrong end of an 83-37 nightmare.

"In the early part of the season, we had new people trying to find roles," Wagner said. "The team just wasn't in sync.

"Then we just had a real tough loss to Fairmont (Senior). It just seemed that at that point everybody made up their minds that everybody was going to do what they had to do to win ballgames."

Winning games is all Philip Barbour has done since.

Beginning with a 62-46 victory over Braxton County the next night, Philip Barbour has rattled off six consecutive victories. Its most recent, a 59-52 bit of revenge against Robert C. Byrd, returned the Colts to the Big 10 race.

"I had no idea what to expect," Wagner said of the moments leading to the Braxton County tipoff. "I didn't know how they'd perform the next night. But we have five good senior leaders. They talked a little in the pregame about going out hard on defense. We got a nice win, and since then we've played pretty good basketball."

Pretty good basketball has been a blend of defense, versatility and athleticism. Led by the stingy play of point guard Austin Day, the Colts are allowing just 56.5 points a game during the winning streak.

Paired against Robert C. Byrd's Luke Wallace, Day helped corral one of the area's best to six points Wednesday.

"Every night, Austin Day takes the other team's best player," Wagner said. "He does a great job defending. He doesn't get the credit he deserves, but he runs the team well and defends."

In the absence of Yeager, now a freshman earning respectable minutes at West Virginia University, the Colts are devoid of a state-wide known standout. They haven't, however, lost their inside presence.

Enter Jeremy Nestor, who has mirrored his team's turnaround. Through four games, the 6-foot-5 senior averaged 7.5 points. During the winning streak, Nestor's upped his average to 18.3, including a season-high 29-point performance in an 84-80 win over Tucker County.

Nestor's work in the paint is aided by the collective 3-point shooting of seniors Joey Stout and Zac Philips. Stout ranks second on the team behind Nestor (15) at 11.2 points a game and has made 21 3-pointers. Philips leads the team with 27 3-pointers and is averaging 10.7 points.

"We haven't had a game yet when both are shooting really well," Wagner said. "But both are good 3-point shooters and that benefits Jeremy inside, of course."

Junior Aaron Yeager (8.3 ppg) had manned the fifth starting spot until injuring his ankle against Tucker County. Adam Gray (7.5) has started in his spot the past two games.

Off the bench, junior Hans Schubert provides another sound defender and adds 6.1 points a game.

Wagner's revamped lineup, playing without Josh Yeager's nightly double-doubles, hasn't offered too many surprises.

"I thought the season would go exactly as it has," Wagner said. "We've been a pretty well-kept secret for a while, and I think we caught a few teams by surprise."

Not any more. In the midst of the half-dozen straight wins, talk has returned to the usual Philip Barbour standards -- winning the Big 10 title and reaching the state tournament. This year's senior class won the league championship as freshmen and juniors and reached Charleston last season.

"I think one big advantage is that this team has played in so many big games," Wagner said. "When they get behind they don't panic, because they've been through that before. That experience was invaluable to them."

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