Story by Jim Horvath
Photos and video by Larry Bennet
With both teams playing intense defense, Thursday’s Division II district semifinal between Bay and Rocky River seemed to have the makings of an instant classic.
But just like the previous two meetings this season, the Pirates’ offense provided fans with a rerun.
Despite getting held to just two points in the second quarter, Rocky River maintained its early lead and ran away in the third quarter for a 50-34 win over the Rockets. The defending champions used a 16-7 third quarter to advance to Saturday night’s title game with top-seeded Benedictine.
The Pirates, now 15-7, tipoff against the Bengals at 7 p.m. at Westlake High School for a chance to advance to the Sweet 16 for the second year in a row. The Rockets saw their season end at 10-13 and a sixth-straight loss to River in the past two seasons.
The game started well enough for Bay, which got a two-handed slam dunk on a fast break rebound by senior Bryan Lowrie in the opening seconds. But when Ryan McCrone answered with a 3-pointer, the Pirates took the lead for good.
With McCrone pouring in 11 of his game-high 18 points in the first quarter, River shot out to an 18-9 lead. That’s when the Rockets stepped up on the defensive end and held the Pirates to just one field goal in eight attempts the rest of the half. River also turned the ball over seven times, and a McCrone bucket with 1:30 left in the half allowed the Pirates to avoid a goose egg in the quarter.
Bay’s offense wasn’t much better, but it was enough to cut the lead to three, 20-17, by halftime.
“They opened up with a dunk, but then we got off to a great start,” said Pirates head coach Michael Murray. “Then they made a great run at us and were playing solid defense. We had trouble putting the ball in the basket, and they were attacking the paint against us pretty well.
“At halftime, we had to adjust and came out a little more aggressive in the second half. We were pushing the ball a lot in transition early on, but Bay did a great job of getting back defensively. We also took a lot of threes in the second quarter, and we didn’t get to the foul line enough.
“So we told the kids at halftime that we had to get to the basket and get some easier shots. We did that in the third quarter,” he added.
Baskets by McCrone and Joey Kinsley inched the River lead up to 24-19 to start the third quarter. A 3-pointer by Jonathan Lihani helped spark at 14-2 run that gave the Pirates some breathing room and threw the Rockets into catchup mode.
During the run, River did get the ball to the basket and started to build its lead at the foul line. The Pirates went five of six at the stripe during the run, then went 10 of 12 in the fourth quarter to close out the win.
For the game, River made 18 of 22 free throw attempts to Bay’s seven of 14.
“This is the third time we’ve played them, so you’re not going to fool anybody,” Murray said. “We tried some sets early and got some good looks, but then they took those away. They made us work for everything.
“Even though we only scored two points in the second quarter, we knew we had to stay positive because we still had the lead,” Murray said. “Obviously we were doing some things well. We played solid defense and made them take tough shots, and we did a good job of closing out on their shooters.
“Early on, we got a little too close to them. They blew right by us and got some good dump-offs. But once we controlled the ball, we were able to pressure them out on the wings and really take them out of what they wanted to do,” he added.
Bay managed just 18 shots in the second half and went just two of six from the stripe. The game was simply a continuation of the problems Bay showed offensively throughout the season, according to Rockets head coach Jason Frolo.
“We battled so hard this game, and I was so proud of our guys in that respect,” Frolo said. “Our defensive intensity was great and we held them to 50 points.
“But when you lose a tournament game, your weaknesses get magnified and exposed. We’ve had our struggles offensively this year as far as execution goes, and even at the free throw line tonight wasn’t great.
“We struggled with those things. When you play a good team like River that plays lock-down defense, they’re going to affect you offensively. Obviously they did that by holding us to 34 points. The last time we played them we had 32.
“Their strength is that suffocating defense. It’s tough for many teams to deal with, and we’re one of them,” he added.
Junior Griffin Thompson led the Rockets with 11 points, while fellow junior Ryan Voiers had six. Lowrie, playing in his final high school game, finished with five points after missing the previous game with a concussion.
River had more fire power to go with its defensive effort. After McCrone’s 18-point performance, Kinsley had 16 points and Lihani chipped in with 11.
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