Story by Jim Horvath
Photos and video by Larry Benne
With two Southwestern Conference games remaining, the Berea-Midpark Titans had an opportunity to wrap up the outright conference championship with a win at Westlake.
But on this Monday night, the Demons had other ideas.
After a tough 61-58 loss at Brecksville knocked them out of the conference race, the Demons returned home and put together one of their best performances of the season. They defeated Berea-Midpark, 68-55, to delay any title decisions and avenge a 71-54 thumping at the hands of the Titans earlier this month.
The Titans, now 9-2 in the SWC, will host Olmsted Falls Friday night with the conference crown on the line. The Bulldogs will enter that game with three SWC losses and needing a win to force a conference title tie.
That scenario developed as Westlake took an early 6-0 lead and never trailed from that point on. The Demons got a conventional 3-point play from senior post player Gavin Skelly and a fast break hoop by junior Anthony Trujillo to take a 22-11 lead late in the first quarter.
Berea-Midpark, which had rallied a number of times from first-half deficits this season, never seemed to get its offense on track. But the Titans stayed close, trailing by only six at halftime, 34-28, on an Alex Brown rebound for two and his two free throws with :02.4 ticks left on the clock.
Early in the third quarter, Brown drilled a 3-pointer and got a steal for two to pull his team to within a point, 36-35. But the Demons responded as Skelly hit a pair of free throws, senior Connor Meek drained a 3-pointer and Skelly got an offensive stick-back to push the lead back out to 43-35.
Nolan Gerrity, the Titans' 6-11 junior, answered with a score inside, but Westlake sophomore Andris Balodis drilled a trey to make it 46-37.
Westlake entered the fourth quarter with a 53-46 lead. Berea-Midpark closed again to within striking distance, 57-52, on a Michael Schuller 3-pointer with just over five minutes remaining. But after a Westlake timeout, the Demons closed it out with an 11-3 run, holding the Titans without a basket the rest of the way.
Westlake head coach Shawn Hood said his team not only followed the game plan, but executed it as well.
"The game plan doesn't always get you the win," Hood explained. "You have to play well in addition to that, and we played well.
"But we did follow the game plan tonight. Even in the first game, we followed the plan and stayed in there for a while. But we stopped following the plan and stropped playing well, so it was a double whammy.
"This time, it was a great execution of our game plan and terrific basketball by our guys. The boys were ready to play from start to finish.
Hood admitted he had concerns about his team prior to last Friday's tough loss at Brecksville that took the Demons out of the SWC race. Monday night, he said those concerns had been put to rest.
"It appears that they are prepared to play 32-minute games," Hood said of his team. "And really, that's all I'm asking for. You're not going to win every game. But if you are prepared to play 32 minutes every time you step over the lines, I'm OK with that.
"There was a time where I wondered where we were mentally, and that was before Friday. It was a couple of games ago. I know that we're still battling, and we're going to finish strong. I believe that," he said.
Skelly led the way with 21 points, including a pair of slam dunks. He also pulled down 12 rebounds, while Meek added 13 points and Trujillo popped in 10 off the bench.
For Berea-Midpark, Brown had 21 points and Schuller 12, while Gerrity contributed nine points and seven rebounds. The Titans were without the services of 6-6 sophomore Brett Swinnerton, who is out for the seasons with an injury.
But Titans head coach Duke Barther felt it was his team's lack of energy at times that made the difference.
"I give credit to Westlake. They came in here hungry, and they played well," Barther said. "What's disappointing to me as a coach is having to say they played harder than us.
"I thought they played with more hunger and desire. Their effort was better, and they deserved to win. We cut it close a couple of times, but I think the better team today won," he said.
Barther was asked if things may have been different had his team been able to take the lead at some point in the game.
"It might have, but I just felt like we were a step slower today," Barther said.
"I'm not sure taking the lead would have changed that," he said. "We were slow going for the ball and defensively getting down the court, which hasn't hurt us all year. We didn't rebound the ball either, so even if we would have been fortunate enough o get a lead, those problems still would have been there.
"I'm disappointed. Now it comes down to Friday night. Olmsted Falls has three losses in the conference and now we have two. But more than anything, conference or whatever, you'd like to be peaking at this point. I felt all year that we were preparing ourselves each day in practice for this point in the year, so you hate to see something like this.
"We'll be alright, and we'll get back after it. But tonight was a step back, for sure," he added.
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