Story by Jim Horvath
Photos and video by Larry Bennet
Looking back at their first meeting with Avon Lake, Westlake head coach Shawn Hood said he felt the Shoremen caught his Demons “off guard.”
On a cold, snowy Friday night in late-January, there were no surprises this time around.
The two teams battled on even terms for the better part of three quarters. But Westlake used a 9-0 spurt late in the third quarter and left Avon Lake with a 54-47 win in this Southwestern Conference rematch.
“In the first game, we didn’t respect them like we respected them this time,” Hood said. “Before the first game, I hadn’t seen them play or had an opportunity to have them scouted. Their athleticism and quickness caught us off guard.
“This time it didn’t. We were prepared for their speed and quickness. We knew they would press us the whole game, but we were ready,” he added.
Back in December, the Shoremen had used that full-court pressure defense to take an 18-10 first quarter lead. It was a lead they never relinquished on their way to a 48-40 victory, the first of five straight SWC wins.
On Friday night, they never led by more than three points in the first half.
A Christian Jones 3-pointer gave the home team a 13-10 lead late in the first quarter. But in the final seconds, Westlake’s Jamie Lackner found himself with the ball at the top of the key. He ball-faked a closing Shoremen defender and drained a 3-pointer of his own to knot the game at 15-15.
With both teams struggling on offense, Avon Lake managed a slim 20-19 lead on a Brad Hamilton drive for two. The Shoremen also held a 22-20 lead on Ben Oxley’s stickback, but Westlake’s Connor Meek put in an offensive rebound of his own to tie the game 22-22 at the half.
The second half opened when Bryan Mackenzie took a pass from Gavin Skelly and scored inside for a 24-22 lead. The contest remained tight for the next five minutes as the two teams matched each other score for score.
A steal for two by Hamilton again tied the game at 31-31, the seventh tie of the game. But from that point on, the game belonged to the Demons.
That’s when Westlake got rolling on that 9-0 run. Up 35-31, a Lackner rebound on the offensive glass led to a Shawn Turk drive for two that beat the buzzer and gave the Demons a 6-point lead heading into the fourth quarter.
Both defenses clamped down to start the final eight minutes of play as neither team could score. But with just over two minutes gone in the quarter, Danny Strodtbeck drilled a 3-pointer to break the ice and give the Demons a 40-31 lead.
As it turned out, that run made all the difference for the visitors. Avon Lake got no closer than the final 7-point difference, with the Demons leading by as many as 11 points twice in the final two minutes.
“The difference in the game tonight was that they did to us what we usually do to other teams,” said Avon Lake head coach Eric Smith.
“They won every single effort play for the entire game,” Smith said. “Every loose ball, they got. They turned those into points and they got a ton of offensive rebounds. That’s usually what we do. We turn people over, get it and go.
“We allowed them to dictate how the game was going to be played. They were a step quicker than we were tonight, for whatever reason,” he added.
“We got back defensively, kept them in front of us and did a little better job of guarding their scorers,” Hood said, referring to Avon Lake’s Seth Muck, Mitch Gabanic and Jones.
“Their big kid (Gabanic) was in foul trouble in the first half, so he really didn’t get going for them. So overall, I thought we did a great job defending their top three scorers.”
The final tally showed Muck and Jones each finishing with 10 points, while the 6-7 Gabanic settled for six points. Hamilton led the Shoremen with 11 points and six rebounds.
Smith felt Westlake’ defense accomplished their goal by limiting his squad’s transition opportunities.
“We were never able to get a run going because we weren’t coming up with the loose ball and getting something in transition,” Smith said. “There wasn’t a lot of transition at all tonight, and that’s to their credit.
“They don’t want to get out and run like that, nor do they want us to run, and that hurt us. We’re not a grind-it-out team. We’ve got to get things going, even in our half-court offense. We need to get it going and push the tempo.
“I think the way they defended, they kind of lulled us to sleep. They did an outstanding job. But I thought we were very passive on both ends of the floor tonight,” he added.
Turk led all scorers with 13 points, while Skelly and Strodtbeck each pitched in with 10. Lackner had nine points, with Skelly leading all rebounders with nine despite foul troubles of his own in the second half.
For the game, Westlake dominated the boards to the tune of 29-14.
“For the most part, we handled their pressure,” said Hood, whose team committed 16 turnovers. “We handled their speed and quickness in the half-court. We were able to get some decent shots offensively because of it.
“Rebounding was also an emphasis,” Hood admitted. “We thought they hurt us there in the first game as well.
The win put Westlake at 13-4 overall and 7-3 in the SWC. That ties the Demons for second place in the conference with Berea. The Braves will be coming to Westlake Tuesday night in another big SWC matchup.
Avon Lake fell to 10-6 overall and 6-4 in the conference. The Shoremen will travel to Amherst Tuesday night.