Marquette junior guard Spencer Cox (11) drives by Highland guard Brady Feldman (21) at Marquette Catholic High School on Tuesday in Alton.

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ALTON - Marquette Catholic head coach Steve Medford is not afraid to admit he’s 5-foot-6 inches tall.

So is his sophomore point guard Cortez Harris.

Although small in size, Harris put in a big performance for the Explorers last night.

“He’s the only guy I look down on. I haven't ever looked down on anybody for a long time,” Medford said. “I’ve been coaching for many, many years and he’s about the only player I’ve had that I’ve had to look down on, but he’s a phenomenal player and a phenomenal talent.”

The Explorers, who were without senior guard Chris Hartrich, executed a solid game plan as a unit and knocked off the 20-win Highland Bulldogs 45-37 at Marquette Catholic High School on Tuesday night.

Marquette gains their seventh victory in a row and improves to 23-3.

Senior forward Nick Hemann and junior guard Spencer Cox led all scorers with 13 points apiece for the Explorers.

Marquette held a steady lead for the entire second half, and with the Bulldogs setting up half-court traps, Harris was able to break out of just about all of them to set up teammates for close, simple looks at the basket. The sophomore, who scored nine points got rave reviews by Medford.

“He’s kind of a one-man press break, and Cortez is just really, really good,” Medford said. “He’s really savvy. He knows how to play. He understands the game about as good as anybody, and he’s only a sophomore. The upside for that kid is really, really high.”

Highland, who dropped to 20-5 on the season, regularly play in a zone defense, but head coach Brian Perkes wanted to pressure Marquette into making mistakes. Ultimately the Explorers were able to unlock the Bulldogs more than enough.

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“We didn’t like the tempo of the game. We thought that we could create some tempo through our defense, and we certainly thought wrong, because it didn’t work. It backfired on us big time,” Perkes said. “We were trying to press with a slower team, a tired team. They knew exactly where to get the ball, and they attacked us, and they got lay-ups and open shots. It was a bad combination for us.”

Highland came into the game averaging 55 points, struggled for most of the night thanks in large part to Marquette’s defensive awareness of switching and taking away the Bulldogs high-low attack with 6-foot-4 forward Sam LaPorta and 6-foot-8 center Stephen Torre.

“They do a lot of good things off the ball screen off us, and then they stick you high-low,” Medford said. “We do a very good job of switching. The one thing we worked on was jamming that screen and going under and that way they couldn’t get the high-low action. I thought our kids did a really good job with that, but I thought defensively when we got LaPorta two fouls, and then they went away from him for just a few minutes, we got back to doing what we normally do. It was a great defensive effort. LaPorta is a man against some 18-year-old boys.”

LaPorta, who averages 15 points per game, finished with 12 and scored eight of them from the free throw line. Jack Kruse added 11 points while Torre and point guard Brady Feldman chipped in six each.

The Bulldogs made their first four shots and got out to an early 9-2 lead, but a three-pointer by Cox would ignite a 10-2 run by the Explorers to take a lead 12-11 heading into the second quarter. It was a lead they would not relinquish.

“Spencer Cox tonight was amazing,” Medford said. “Not only the way that he competed all night long but the shots he hit early to kind of get back into it, being down 9-2, hits a 3, it’s 9-5. Just never let the game get away from us. I thought he played amazing and I thought his defensive effort was awesome.”

A three-pointer by Harris and two layups by Bretty Terry and Nate Hall increased the Explorers lead to 19-16 at halftime. LaPorta scored all of the Bulldogs five points in the second quarter.

Marquette was able to replace Hartrich’s usual impact with others stepping up. Along with Harris, Cox, and Terry, junior guard Iggy McGee was a spark plug on defense. So was Hall, a 6-foot-5 sophomore who helped contain Highland’s length.

“Chris Hartrich is a leader on this team. He’s a leader that practices the right way, and he’s shown the way for us for so long, we had some other guys step up for us tonight. It’s next-man-up. I thought Iggy did a great job,” Medford said. “I thought [Hall] challenged down on the post. He moved his feet; he danced, it was something we worked on all week long was jamming screens and really trying to break contact down low and try and move around and be more active feet, active hands type of defender down low.”

In the second half, Highland’s aggressive half-court trap kept getting found out time and time again, thanks to Harris’ trap-busting mastery, which allowed Marquette to extend their lead to as big as 43-33. Coach Perkes admitted that he would’ve done things differently looking back on his decision to play more up-tempo rather than sticking to playing zone defense.

“If I had to do it over again, I would have stayed in the zone,” Perkes said. “It was a terrible matchup for us. They’re much quicker, well-schooled against pressure. They tore us apart on the pressure, but once we fell behind, we had no other option because [Medford] was going to hold the ball. If we had to do it over again with that lead, we would have been very content to sit in that zone, and if he was going to be very patient, we’d have been much better off.”

Chris Rhodes also contributed to this story.

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