Story by Jim Horvath
Photos and video by Larry Bennet
Westlake head coach Shawn Hood made no bones about what he expected from his Westlake basketball season early on this season.
One of those expectations was for his Demons to play with intensity. If Tuesday night was any indication, that intensity could be a big problem for future opponents to handle.
“I wanted to see another game - back-to-back games - of high-level intensity,” Hood said after his Demons got off to a hot start and took out visiting Rocky River, 68-45, to move to 2-0 on the 2012-13 season.
“I didn’t talk about strategy. I didn’t talk about our pressure,” Hood said. “I wasn’t really specific in terms of scouting. I just wanted to see an off-the-board level of intensity. And for the most part, I saw that tonight.”
The Pirates took an early 2-0 lead on a bucket inside from senior guard Alex Schade. That proved to be their only lead of the game as Westlake went on a 13-0 run, topped off by Shawn Turk’s 3-pointer.
Westlake held a 15-5 advantage after one quarter and upped the lead to 20-5 early in the second quarter on a Gavin Skelly trey and a pair of free throws from senior forward Bryan Mackenzie. At that point, the only thing keeping the Pirates in the game was the shooting of Ryan McCrone.
McCrone, the Pirates’ 6-5 senior, nearly caught the Demons by himself with three straight 3-pointers. That cut the lead to 24-16, with McCrone ending up scoring 14 points in a row for the visitors.
But Westlake’s pressure kept coming, forcing 16 turnovers in the half that kept feeding the Demons’ running game. Westlake closed out the half with a 9-2 run to take a 33-18 lead into the halftime locker room.
“You’ve got to give Westlake credit,” said River head coach Michael Murray, whose team was playing its first game of the season.
“They’re big, they’re physical and they got out to a lead on us right away,” Murray said. “We fought back and got it back down to six or seven late in the second quarter. But then we send them to the line and they converted, then a couple turnovers later we go into the half down 33-18.”
Hood said keeping Murray’s Pirates off balance played a key role in the Demons building their first-half lead.
“Coach Murray is a phenomenal coach,” Hood said. “I honestly don’t know that there are many coaches better than him around. They play a tremendous style, with great strategy in terms of their offensive sets.
“The only thing we could do to overcome their stuff was counter with our level of intensity. And I thought we did that early. The intensity gave us the 15-5 lead. I knew they would come back because they’re a good team.
“But because we maintained that level of intensity, I think we were able to wearn them down a bit,” he added.
The Pirates started the second half as they did the first. River scored first on a jumper from senior Richard Bremkamp, but Westlake came back quickly on a baseline jump and a hook shot for two from Skelly. Another Skelly score inside countered a pair of free throws from sophomore Pat Connors, and Westlake had upped the lead to 39-22.
River’s offense began to ckick in the quarter, but not enough to cut into the lead. The third quarter ended on junior Markis Beach’s baseline drive that made it 47-30, Demons.
The fourth quarter began with another 3-pointer from Turk that pushed to lead to 20, Westlake’s biggest lead of the game to that point. That lead would grow to 26 when River was called for an intentional foul on a Skelly fast break shot attempt.
With just over five minutes left in the game, the 6-8 junior hit both freebies, then Mackenzie followed up with a score inside to make it 59-33. Six straight points from Bremkamp got the lead back down to 20, but the Demons matched River score for score the rest of the way to close out the win.
Skelly finished with a game-high 24 points and 10 rebounds as the Demons dominated on the boards, 35-21. Turk finished with 10 points and five boards, while junior guard Aaron Wargo added 10 points as well. Mackenzie and Beach each chipped in with eight points.
Beach and Wargo, along with fellow juniors Josef Hadib-Nissan and Connor Meek, all saw considerable playing time from Hood.
“I have all the confidence in the world in Beach, Wargo, Hadib-Nissan and Meek,” Hood said. “I’m going to just put them out there. I believe in them. I have no doubt that they’re going to be be major factors in our success this season.”
River was led by McCrone, who wound up with 15 points to be the only Pirate in double figures. Bremkamp added nine points, while freshman Eric Jones came in off the bench and popped in seven. Senior forward Thomas McNamara led the Pirates in rebounding with six.
“I think you saw kids step up more for us in the second half,” Murray said. “We have kids who have played in our program, but haven’t played at the varsity level. Experience wise, we’re young.
“There were some things we did better in the second half than we did in the first half. Hopefully we’ll build on that. It’s a challenge to go up against a team like Westlake. They’re going to be physical and go after every rebound.
“I think our blocking out was inconsitent, and that led to some easy baskets for them,” Murray explained. “Now they get to press you as well, so one mistake can lead to two or three depending on how you handle that pressure.
“Our kids have to understand that we want to be aggressive, but we also have to be smart. In the press, there were times where we were aggressive and handled it well, but there were other times where we were out of sorts. The same thing happened offensively.
“But our kids played hard and played until the final buzzer. I think we’ll learn a lot from this experience,” he added.