Story by Jim Horvath
Photos and video by Larry Bennet
In Avon Lake’s first two Southwestern Conference games, getting off to a good start wasn’t enough as the Shoremen faltered late in losses to Brecksville and Berea.
But Friday night at Westlake, a few more pieces of that fourth-quarter puzzle fell into place for head coach Eric Smith’s crew.
Avon Lake again got off to a fast start, taking an 18-10 lead in the first quarter. This time, the Shoremen held on to that lead the rest of the way in a solid 48-40 win over the Demons in a hard-fought SWC hoops matchup.
With the win, the Shoremen evened their overall record at 2-2 and caimed their first SWC win of the young season. Westlake, the defending league co-champion, dropped its first game of the season in five outings and fell one game behind co-leaders Brecksville and Berea.
“We gotten off to fast starts in every game we’ve played this year,” Smith said. “Our problem has been finishing. We haven’t had really good fourth quarters offensively.
“We’ve been a very good defensive team so far because we’re only giving up 49 points a game. The problem is we’ve been turning the ball over in the fourth quarter and not giving ourselves a chance.
“I thought we really grew up tonight as far as handling their pressure and doing the things we wanted to do offensively. We shared the ball a lot,” he added.
The Shoremen took a 36-27 lead into the fourth quarter when junior guard Christian Jones banked in a long-range 3-pointer from the left wing to beat the third-quarter buzzer. Avon Lake converted a Demon turnover into a Seth Muck fast break hoop on the very first play of the fourth, and the visitors had a 38-27 advantage and momentum on their side.
Westlake fought back moments later when Bryan Mackenzie won a battle under the boards for an offensive rebound. With contact beginning to force the 6-2 senior out of bounds, he managed to get the ball to his 6-8 teammate, Gavin Skelly.
Skelly, who had bounced back from a very quiet first half, gathered himself and went up for a two-handed slam that ignited the Westlake faithful.
Smith called timeout with 6:30 left in the game.
“I just wanted to settle them down,” admitted Smith. “One thing about Westlake is that they pressure you full court and get you to speed up so you play faster than you want to inthe half court. They want you to take rushed shots and poor shots.”
Westlake got back to within eight, 39-31, when Skelly scored again off the offensive glass. But Avon Lake would not be shaken, breaking through the Demons’ full-court pressure and going right into a spread offense.
The move paid dividends immediately when Muck scored on a drive to the hoop with 3:22 left. With the lead back up to 10, the Shoremen were content to play defense, run a patient offense and wait for the Demons to foul.
With 1:48 left, the Shoremen got into the double bonus and began their march to the charity stripe. They made just seven of 14, but it was more than enough. All Westlake could muster during the next minute was Skelly’s baseline drive with 1:14 remaining.
“Once we got the ball into the front court, I thought we did a nice job of running our offense and forcing them to defend,” Smith said. “We took good shots. We run the motion offense pretty well, and we backed it out a little early because we knew they were one foul away from putting us in the bonus.
“We’ve been shooting 80 percent from the free throw line coming into tonight, so missing as many as we did was a bit uncharacteristic of us. It was a tough game, maybe some nerves out there, but we still made enough of them to hold on,” he added.
The Demons scored twice in the final 14 seconds, but it was too little, too late. In fact, a strong second half proved to be not nearly enough to overcome what proved to be a disastrous first half.
In the first 16 minutes, Westlake made just six of 30 shots from the floor. Skelly, who spent a good part of the second quarter on the bench, went scoreless with just two rebounds. He bounced back to finish with 11 points, nine rebounds and five blocked shots, with Danny Strodtbeck chipping in with 10 points and six boards.
But Hood felt the game’s end result had more to do with Avon Lake’s play from start to finish.
“I think our start had only some to do with us and mostly to do with them,” Hood said “
“They’re athletic and they played hard, and we struggled to get things going,” Hood continued. “We haven’t faced that kind of athleticism yet, and they’re physical. We just haven’t faced that, and our kids were shell-shocked.
“It’s as if we were offended that they played us so hard. But clearly, it was them. They made us play that way,” he added.
Muck led the Shoremen with 12 points, while 6-7 senior Mitch Gabanic followed up with 11 and Brad Hamilton nine. Avon Lake will host Medina next Friday night as the SWC takes a break from conference games.
And back outside the Westlake locker room, Hood said while he appreciated his team’s effort to get back into the game, the game-changing shot never came.
“Avon Lake felt like they could stop us and played with great confidence from the opening tip to the final buzzer,” Hood said. “Yes, we couldn’t get that one or two shots to get us over the hump, but that was because of them.
“We’ve got a ton of time off before our next game, so I’ve got to sit down and think about what we’re going to do next,” he added.
The Demons don’t hit the court again until Dec. 29 when they travel to North Ridgeville.
Southwestern Conference Standings
1. Brecksville 3-0 (4-0); 2. Berea 3-0 (4-1); 3. Westlake 2-1 (4-1); 4. Amherst 1-2 (3-2); 5. Avon Lake 1-2 (2-2); 6. Olmsted Falls 1-2 (2-2); 7. Midpark 1-2 (3-2); North Olmsted 0-3 (0-5)