DJ Carton paused, looked up at the scoreboard and gave a wry smile after being stripped by a Muscatine defender on a drive to the basket. Frustration was mounting for the Bettendorf senior after a night against a swarming Muscatine defense.

Sure, it wasn’t enough for Muscatine to earn its first win of the season. But there was plenty to like in Muscatine’s 55-41 setback to Class 4A No. 3 Bettendorf at home Friday night after going more than two weeks between games.

“Over the last four games they were the (best) offensive team in the conference and scored 70 points a game last week,” Muscatine coach John Windham said of Bettendorf. “Defense right now, I’m very pleased with our defensive effort. Defense is what keeps us in the game. We just need five guys that can step in and shoot.”

The Muskies held Bettendorf to a season-low 55 points, the same point total it had in a loss to Class 4A No. 1 North Scott earlier this season. Bettendorf entered Friday’s game averaging 68.7 points per game, the top mark in the Mississippi Athletic Conference. A lot of that was due to Muscatine’s work on Carton, as the five-star Ohio State commit was held to 12 points on 4-of-8 shooting.

The Muskies played some zone but stuck mostly with either senior Cooper Zeck or junior Sean Brown on Carton with defenders loaded up ready to help anytime Carton made a move. It worked, as Carton was held to 14 points below his season average just eight days after scoring 49 points against Davenport West.

“Cooper (Zeck) held him (Carton) to 11 at their house,” Windham said. “Sean (Brown) started on him then Coop came in, and the two of them both played lock-down defensively.”

Still, it was more than just the Muskies’ effort on Carton that held the Bulldogs in check. Muscatine (0-14, 0-11 MAC) hasn’t allowed an opponent to reach 60 points since before Christmas break, and it’s clear the team is starting to form a defensive identity.

That’s started with Jake Thomas getting tough in the paint.

“I think Jake Thomas is starting to understand that when he can bang with the big boys, good things happen,” Windham said. “We’re now to the point where we don’t need to tell them where they need to be defensively.”

Still, offensive woes in the first quarter dug a 12-point deficit Muscatine was never able to overcome. The Muskies didn’t score a point in the opening period and trailed the Bulldogs (14-1, 11-1 MAC) 12-0 after the first quarter.

“It was intimidation in the first quarter,” Windham said. “That’s the bottom line. We came in at halftime and said, ‘Doesn’t matter about X’s and O’s, we just have to play hard.' Second half we came out and played with some heart.”

Indeed, Muscatine was only outscored by two points the rest of the way and scored 41 points in three quarters, which Windham remarked is “pretty damn good.” That’s more than it’s scored in nine games this season.

After a tough start, Noah Yahn scored 12 points in the second half, including a 3-pointer with three minutes remaining in the third quarter to bring the deficit down to 33-21. He led all scorers with 18 points on the night. Bettendorf went on an 11-3 spurt to end the quarter, sparked by three makes from beyond the arc from Trevor Feller to extend the lead to 44-26 after three quarters.

Feller led the Bulldogs with 17 points.

Still, even though Friday won’t officially go down as anything other than a loss, Windham hopes his team gains confidence after hanging with the No. 3 ranked team in the state.

“As a coaching staff, we’ve already preached being confident,” Windham said. “Some of the kids are starting to get it, that’s why we’re getting better.”

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