Story by Jim Horvath
Photos and video by Larry Bennet
Two coaches. Two teams. Two very different viewpoints.
“I thought it was very important to set the tempo early in the game. I thought we did a really nice job at both ends of the floor, especially defensively. We guarded the heck out of them tonight, and that was the key to our win.”
“It was a rough night for us on both ends of the court. They really came at us. They’re playing well down the stretch here, and we showed the inconsistency we’ve struggled with throughout the season.”
Any one of the many fans who took in Friday night Avon-Rocky River game could easily match the quote to the corresponding coach: Avon’s Jim Baker and Rocky River’s Michael Murray.
The Eagles took control from the opening tip and fought off a third quarter River rally to defeat the Pirates, 53-42, in a key West Shore Conference basketball game. The win kept Avon one game behind front-running Midview in the conference race, and all but eliminated defending champion Rocky River.
Earlier in the week, the Pirates had rebounded from a heartbreaking, last-second loss to Midview with a 44-41 win over Valley Forge. But with Friday’s loss, they fell to 6-4 in the WSC with just two league games remaining.
Avon improved to 8-2 in the league, while Midview stayed on top at 9-1 with a 64-50 win over Bay.
“We played well on Tuesday against Valley Forge, then came out tonight and struggled,” Murray said. “The final difference in the score may have been 11, but it wasn’t even that close. Any time you can’t get stops and you can’t score, it feels worse.
“We missed shots we normally make. We took some great shots early in the game when we got down, but we can’t let that affect us at the defensive end. They had guys running open all night long. It would be one thing if they were hitting tough shots, but they were open for a majority of them.
“For a team that hangs it’s hat on defense, if we’re not going to defend, it’s going to be a long night for us,” Murray added.
The game’s first score, a wide-open 3-pointer from River senior Jonathan Lihani, proved to be no indication of what was to come. Avon went on a 12-4 run to close out the quarter, thanks to a pair of five-point efforts from senior Claude Gray and junior Jack Poyle.
The Pirates, who committed 10 turnovers in the first half, began to struggle offensively. They were in the game at 17-12 on a tip-in from junior guard Ryan McCrone, but the Eagles went on another run to claim a 28-16 halftime lead.
Gray was a big factor in that run, eight of his team’s 11 points. A Poyle 3-pointer closed out the run and had the visitors back on their heels.
Senior Joey Kinsley put his team on his back to start the second half, scoring on a baby hook, a jumper and an offensive rebound to make it 30-22. Another Lihani trey had the Pirate fans thinking comeback.
Moments later, River cut the Avon lead to five for a second time on a bucket inside and free throw from senior Brian Thorn. But the Eagles went on yet another run, this one a 9-3 spurt that pushed their advantage back out to 11, 42-31, entering the fourth quarter.
In the final eight minutes, the Avon lead grew to 15 twice, once on a score by senior Mike Maloney and again on a score inside by Gray. That basket proved to be Gray’s last as he fouled out with 1:36 remaining.
By that time, however, the game’s final outcome had been all but decided.
“Even when we got it down to five, you could tell it would be tough,” Murray said. “We were starting to make a comeback, but we were working so hard. There were no easy baskets, and we still weren’t forcing any turnovers or forcing tougher shots on their part.
“We tried to make adjustments. But we had kids in the wrong spots on both ends of the court, and that’s not characteristic of the way we play. We’re not going to have success if we do that,” he added.
As disappointed as Murray was, Baker was just as pleased.
“Tonight we probably played, with this type of opponent, as good of a basketball game as we’ve played all year at both ends of the floor,” Baker said.
“They have some very good shooters. McCrone was a focal point, and so was Lihani. We told the kids to keep their guys in front of them and challenge everything they do, then go rebound it, run the floor and see what happens.
“We had a one-point win at their place, so we knew coming in we had a challenge. This was two teams fairly evenly matched, size-wise and everything else. It came down to execution, and our kids made some plays tonight,” he added.
Gray led all scorers with 21 points, while Maloney added 14 and Poyle nine. Kinsley and Lihani each had 14 points for the Pirates, but the points were few and far between after that.
“You know what you’re going to get with Claude, and Maloney played very well at both ends of the floor,” Baker said. “Brian Poyle handles the ball and keeps us organized out there, and Jack knocked down some big shots.
“A.J. Kistler came off the bench and gave us some good minutes too, so it was good to see a lot of kids contributing. The guys we needed to produce produced and the role players executed their roles. It was a team win, and tonight feels good,” he added.
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