After trailing by as many as 21 points in the first half, Rocky River had come all the way back. Visiting Westlake, with two key players already fouled out of the game, was on the ropes.
With the partisan Pirate crowd already whipped into a frenzy, the decibel level rose even higher when River eventually tied the game to send it into overtime. And with a 52-49 lead early on in OT, the momentum was clearly in the Pirates’ favor.
The Demons, however, had other ideas.
Westlake, behind the performance of point guard Ezzat Assad, went on an improbable 10-0 run. That gave the Demons a 59-52 victory and handed first-year head coach Shawn Hood his first win in the process.
“Ezzat did a great job,” Hood said after being congratulated by several Westlake fans. “He’s a tough kid, there’s no question.
“In fairness to him, he’s learning a new position. He’s never played the point in his entire career,” Hood said. “I put him there. I want him there, and I’m going to keep him there. He’s growing everyday.”
Assad, making his first start at the position, looked like a seasoned veteran as he errupted for seven of his team’s 11 points in the overtime period to help erase the River lead.
The 5-9 senior hit both ends of a one-and-one with 2:39 left to get the Demons back within a point at 52-51. Seconds later, he drove the ball to the hoop to give Westlake the lead for good at 53-52. The next time down the floor, junior Danny Strodtbeck scored on a backdoor cut on the baseline.
Westlake led 55-52, prompting a River timeout with 1:29 remaining.
That timeout, however, did nothing to slow down the Demon rally. On the very next play, junior guard Shawn Turk stole the ball in front of the River bench. He passed the ball ahead to Assad, who scored another layin to make it 57-52.
An offensive foul on the Pirates with 51 seconds left gave the ball back to the Demons. The ball went down low on the left block to junior Jamie Lackner, who found fellow junior Bryan Mackenzie all alone on the back side for two.
That made it 59-52, Demons, with 21 seconds left. The Pirates continued to misfire offensively, making just two of eight shots in the overtime compared to Westlake’s four of five.
The Demons - and Hood - had their first win of the season.
All of this happened with two Demons sitting on the bench due to disciplinary measures and two others, senior Grant Gase and 6-8 sophomore Gavin Skelly, having fouled out in the fourth quarter.
“With two of our top eight guys in street clothes, then having Grant and Gavin foul out, I thought Jamie and Danny came in and did a fabulous job,” Hood said. “They handled the ball on offense, but mostly they defended well.
“River is good. He has a very, very good team. They run such a sophisticated offense that it’s very difficult to prepare for, especially so early in the season. We’re just now teaching how to guard a back screen, how to guard a cross screen, a double screen and a staggered screen.
“The only thing you can do is lean on your defensive principles and hustle. I thought our kids did that, and that’s how we were able to weather the storm,” he said.
That storm was a fierce one. The Pirates, who shot an ice-cold five of 29 from the floor in the first half, got things going in the third quarter. Seven points from Michael Pavlik and a pair of 3-pointers from Ryan McCrone sparked an 18-9 run to make it 39-30 heading into the fourth.
A Pavlik free throw cut the lead to eight with 7:35 left in regulation. But Turk scored on a reverse layup, then nailed a trey to put the Demons back up by 13, 44-31. A Turk jumper with 3:46 left had Westlake up 48-38.
That’s when River made its move.
A 3-pointer and a pair of free throws by Joey Kinsley had the Pirates within five with 2:39 to go. That’s when Skelly exited the game for the Demons to further fuel the River rally.
An offensive rebound for two by Pavlik and a bucket inside by Jonathan Lihani got it to 48-47. Lihani was fouled on his score and made the free throw that sent the game into overtime.
In the overtime, Assad split a pair of free throws for a brief Demon lead. Pavlik then scored inside and Kinsley hit a jumper to give the Pirates their final lead of the game.
“We had to use a lot of energy to get back into the game, but that’s no excuse,” said River head coach Michael Murray, whose team committed 13 turnovers in the first half to go along with the cold shooting from the floor.
“We had our chances, and you have to give them credit from the start,” Murray said. “There were a lot of things we could have done better in the first half. People will look at missed layups and other shots we normally make. Defensively, we weren’t very good as well. Both cost us in the first half.
“You look at the overtime, we went up three and had all of the momentum. Then we come down and take a three off of one pass. They go down and score, then we come down and take another three. It’s something you don’t expect, especially with an experienced team.
“You’d think we’d have better possessions. It’s something we have to work on, but I’m proud of the kids that they didn’t hang their heads at halftime. They came out and played hard. There are some positives we’ll take from this. You have to give Westlake credit. They played really well, and that had something to do with it,” he added.
Pavlik led all scorers with 21 points for River while grabbing nine rebounds. Kinsley had 12 points and Lihani 10 points and eight rebounds for the Pirates, who open defense of their West Shore Conference crown Friday night at Bay in the Hoops For Hunger Game.
Westlake had a balanced attack, led by Turk’s 12 points. Assad chipped in with his 11 points, followed by Mackenzie with eight. Skelly and Matthew Leonard each had seven points for the Demons, who host Amherst in their home opener Friday night
“I’m not happy River came back, but you have to give them credit,” Hood said. “They have good players who are very skilled. They’re at home with a great crowd, and so I expected them to come back.
“But we were able to hold them off, so our kids passed a big test today,” he added.