Story by Jim Horvath
Photos and video by Larry Bennet
With 6:13 left in the first half, things were looking pretty good for the Rocky River basketball team.
The young Pirates, with two freshmen in their starting lineup, held a 17-15 lead and were more than holding their own against visiting Westlake. But for the next 13-plus minutes of the game, it was as if somebody had pulled the plug on River’s offense.
The Demons, sporting a new-look roster of their own, went on a 17-4 run during that stretch. That proved to be the difference as they held off the Pirates down the stretch and left town with a 51-39 win Friday night to open the 2012-13 season.
“We knew we just had to keep applying full-court pressure,” said Westlake head coach Chip Weiss, whose team forced 15 first-half turnovers and 10 more in the third quarter.
“We knew they were going to make some shots right away,” Weiss said. “We just wanted to keep pressuring them, and it worked because we held them to three points in the second quarter.”
“We just wore them down, kept that pressure on and made them take a lot of poor shots,” he added.
The Pirates held that early lead despite turning the ball over eight times in the first quarter alone. But after a Kara Johanson free throw got River the 17-15 advantage, Westlake scored the next six points to take a 21-17 lead.
The run could have been more, but the Demons managed to hit just four of eight free throws. As a result, a Carolyn Farling rebound for two got the Pirates back on the board and had them trailing by ony a bucket at halftime.
But as the second half got underway, the turnovers kept piling up for River.
Westlake took advantage and went to work at it’s end of the court. Senior Rachel Collins scored on a rebound for two, then sophomore Corinne Furci hit a jumper to make it 25-19. River head coach Mike Sislowski called a timeout, but the break in the action did little to stop the Demon run.
On their next two possessions, the Pirates turned the ball over. Both times, senior Maggie Zimmerman cashed in with a layup at the other end to make it 29-19, Demons. A pair of free throws from senior Meghan Ittu broke the River scoreless streak, but free throws from sophomore Ashley Collins pushed the Westlake lead back out to 32-21 with 2:21 left in the third quarter.
“Our defense is going to be our offense this year,” Weiss said of his team’s third-quarter run. “Against teams with bigger players like Rocky River, we have to keep the pressure on and force them to make quick decisions with the ball.”
A baseline jumper from freshman Lucy Grierson was the first Pirate basket of the second half. It came with 1:50 left in the quarter, and the 5-8 forward followed that up with a score inside to get the Pirates back to within seven point at 32-25.
The two teams traded free throws, then Furci split a pair to end the quarter and make it 35-27 heading into the fourth. Furci got the Demons started early on in the final quarter, nailing a 3-pointer at the top of the key to push the lead back out to double digits at 38-27.
From that point on, the rest of the game seemed more like a free throw shooting contest for the visitors. Westlake got to the line for 14 attempts, but made just seven as River continued to hang within striking distance.
But the Pirates could score only eight points in the final four minutes, three of those coming on a Grierson trey with just under a minute left in the game. A pair of Kobe free throws, along with her driving basket in the final seconds, capped off the senior guard’s opening night.
“The game really came down to them having Liz Kobe,” Sislowski said after that game. “She’s a phenomenal player for them. I thought her leadership helped guide them through their rough spurts.
“I think with our young team, we’re growing. We have to find that person, the one we can count on during those minutes. We fought like crazy. With a roster as young and inexperienced as ours, we weren’t sure what to expect.”
Kobe, Westlake’s 5-9 senior guard, scored 14 points to tie Furci for team honors. She scored eight of those points in the first quarter, including a pair of treys that helped her team get off to an 11-6 start.
“I was very happy going into halftime where we were,” Sislowski said. “Then Westlake came out with great fight to start the third quarter. They got their lead up to eight points, so the rest of the game we were playing from behind.
“With a young team, I thought that affected us. But again, I really thought Kobe was the difference in this game,” he added.
River was led by Grierson, who scored 14 points. Johanson had 10 points and five rebounds, while Ittu chipped in with seven points. Senior Annie Swartz led the way on the boards with 10 rebounds as the taller Pirates won that battle, 33-23.
“We did a lot of good things out there,” Sislowski said. “Now it’s about eliminating those mental lapses. Every once in a while, we’d have one of those, and I thought Westlake did a nice job of capitalizing on them.
“They hit some clutch shots in the second half that kept us at a distance. That’s how they walk out of this gym with a win and we walk out with an ‘L.’ But we’ve got girls in our locker room who I believe will be difference makers this year like Kobe is for them.
“My job is to teach them into those roles, coach them up and have them prepared. I think these girls will respond to that,” he added.