A year ago, players and coach agree, Transylvania would have lost to Heartland Conference rival Hanover on Thursday night.
Hanover, not Transylvania, got off to a hot start at the Beck Center, scoring the first eight points. The margin was the same midway through the half before the Pioneers recovered and led by five at the break.
Despite only one Heartland victory — against Transylvania, no less — the Panthers stayed with the Pioneers, scoring the last two points of regulation, missing a game-winning shot and losing in overtime 74-69.
"Last year, we'd have lost," said Brock Jones, a senior tri-captain with Joey Verax and Aaron Cash. "We're leaps and bounds ahead of where we were."
Transylvania Coach Brian Lane agreed with his player.
"We lost last year when teams made pushes against us," Lane said. "This year we've responded.
"The identity we're talking about is toughness. We were down (Thursday) because we were soft. We were able to recognize that and put more into it."
As a result, the Pioneers share the Heartland lead with Franklin at 8-2. Defiance is 7-2 and Anderson 7-3.
The 16-game schedule ends Feb. 21 with the conference tournament the next week. The regular-season champion is the host, a prize coveted by all contenders.
To leading scorer Verax, Transylvania began an identity change following an 81-64 loss to Wisconsin-Superior in the Cactus Jam in Phoenix on Dec. 27.
"We were tied at the half, then they beat us pretty bad," Verax said. "We won the next two games and now it's nine of our last 10. (The loss) made us focus more.
"If we play our game we can compete with anyone in the country. If we don't, anybody can compete with us."
Jones, the first Pioneer off the bench, said, "The key for us is toughness. It really showed against Hanover. We didn't play our best basketball, but we played tough when things weren't going right."
Cash said, "We can score inside and out, making it tough for the other team to defend. We've got good post players, and we keep getting better on defense."
The Pioneers learned from their 55-53 loss at Hanover on Dec. 3.
"We took one on the chin, then we went to work," Cash said. "We had to get better, and we try to improve every day.
"This is the 'funnest' time of year. We're well into conference play, and all the games are big. We have to be ready every night."
Lane has observed his team becoming efficient from the opening tip-off.
"We've done that since Christmas," he said. "We talk about setting a tone, but we didn't do that against Hanover. We made a couple of turnovers and didn't make some stops."
But the tri-captains and a solid junior class of Tim Tierney, Matthew Parton and Black McCowan eventually restored order. Verax outscored Hanover 11-9 in the extra period, and Transylvania prevailed.
"This season is special for the seniors," Jones said. "We've got one more shot. We want to stay tough."