By BLAKE TOPPMEYER
Herald-Whig Sports Writer
BEARDSTOWN, Ill. -- The way T.J. Wilson saw it, the West Hancock boys basketball team just as easily could have been the Wisconsin Badgers on Wednesday night.
The Titans played defense a lot like Bo Ryan's lock-down Big Ten squads.
West Hancock limited North Mac to 9-of-38 shooting (23.7 percent) en route to a 52-30 victory in the semifinals of the Class 2A Beardstown Sectional.
"Their switching and their help defense is so good," said Wilson, North Mac's coach. "It's like we were playing against Wisconsin. They guard the 3-point line, they deflect a lot of passes and they don't let you get in the lane. You can't get layups. You've got to make jump shots."
The Panthers (21-8) struggled to do that, like so many of the Titans' other opponents this season. West Hancock (27-5) is surrendering just 38.5 points per game this season. They have limited their opponents to 40 points or less in 20 games this season, including each of the last six games. West Hancock is 19-1 in those games.
"It all starts at the defensive end," West Hancock senior Austin Hardy said. "If they can't score, we know we're going to be in good shape. We know we can go down and score. We need to get stops on defense. When we do that, we're playing well and we can win a lot of games."
West Hancock will play in Friday's sectional championship against the winner of Thursday's semifinal between No. 3-ranked Pleasant Plains (28-1) and Riverton (24-3).
Part of West Hancock's defensive effort included limiting North Mac senior point guard Tommy Ulinski to four points on 2-of-17 shooting. Ulinski came in averaging 22 points per game and was coming off a 43-point performance in the Panthers' 69-64 win over Pana in the championship of the Auburn Regional.
"We did a really good job of playing defense," West Hancock senior Paxton Harmon said. "We knew that their shooter could go off on us, and we did a really good job of contesting his shot and making it tough on him all night. He struggled, and it was a lot because of our defense."
Hardy had primary defensive responsibilities on Ulinski, but the Titans also switched on every screen of the Panthers' screen-heavy offense.
Hardy led West Hancock with 16 points, and he helped fuel the Titans' 22-0 first-half run. Hardy dished to Harmon for a two-pointer on the right baseline with 1 minute, 10 seconds remaining in the first quarter. That cut North Mac's lead to 8-7.
Hardy followed that up with a 3-pointer from the top of the key to give the Titans a 10-8 lead with 10 seconds left in the first quarter, and West Hancock never trailed again. Hardy, who tallied five rebounds and a game-high six assists, had five points, four assists and three rebounds during the run.
West Hancock outscored North Mac 21-2 in the second quarter, and the Titans were 9 of 10 from the field in that eight-minute span. On the only shot they missed, senior Parker Gibbs grabbed the rebound and made a putback. That sent West Hancock into halftime with a 31-10 lead.
"We didn't run any sets. We just went out and played up and down the floor and made shots," Hardy said of the first-half flurry.
West Hancock made 13 of 17 first-half field-goal attempts, while the Panthers made 4 of 21.
In the second half, North Mac never got any closer than 17 points.
"That (second quarter) is a huge quarter in a sectional," West Hancock coach Reno Pinkston said. "All we had to do after that was just make sure we didn't give up second shots. We fouled some shooters, and we did some things we shouldn't have done with the lead, but we kind of maintained that cushion and didn't let them make a run on us."
West Hancock featured a balanced attack. Harmon had 11 points, Coy Dorothy tallied 10 points and Gibbs had eight points and a game-high 10 rebounds.
Taten Musso led North Mac with 19 points. He was the only Panther to score more than five points.
"We have all bought into it. We're all committed to our defense," Harmon said. "We aren't just each player out there. We're together. That's our strength. When someone needs help, we cover for them."