Story by Jim Horvath
Photos and video by Larry Bennet
After a rough start to their season, the Avon Eagles had played some solid basketball down the stretch. They carried that momentum into the post season with a home win over Parma in the first round of the sectional tournament.
Saturday night in Berea, that momentum continued to build. Early in the third quarter, senior guard Brian Kelly drove to the hoop and had his Eagles on the brink against state-ranked Berea-Midpark.
That's when the Titans shifted their game into another gear.
The Southwestern Conference champions scored the next 18 points and never looked back. Berea-Midpark left Purdy Gymnasium with a 68-48 win to claim a sectional championship and a berth in next week's district semifinals.
Berea-Midpark will now face a familiar foe Wednesday night at Midview. The Titans will take on Olmsted Falls, a 54-52 winner over Avon Lake in another Saturday night sectional final. A little over a week ago, the Titans and Bulldogs had squared off with the SWC championship on the line.
Avon, which will join the SWC for the 2015-16 season, closed out its season at 9-14.
"We told our kids we wanted to compete with these guys tonight," said Eagles head coach Kevin Sapara.
"This is a team that we're going to be in the conference with in two years," he said. "We understand they're highly-ranked in the state and a pretty talented team. But we wanted to come out here tonight and compete.
"We didn't want them to blow us out of the water. We wanted to make it a game."
And make it a game they did, as far as the first half was concerned.
The Titans jumped out to a quick 7-0 lead, with a Michael Schuller 3-pointer forcing Sapara to call a timeout with just 1:40 gone off the clock. His Eagles responded, scoring the next eight points to take their first lead of the game.
Berea-Midpark held a 17-10 first quarter lead, but Avon came right back in the second quarter. The Eagles again grabbed the lead, 26-25, on a 3-pointer from sophomore Jeffrey Laraway with 2:20 left in the half. But by halftime, a pair of Nolan Gerrity free throws had the Titans up three, 32-29.
"That first half was awesome," Sapara said. "Our kids were hitting shots, they were rebounding. In the second half, we came out and got a quick score. After that, we were getting good shots, we were just missing them.
"They were getting rebounds, and we couldn't get anything going."
A baseline jumper by junior Zach Torbert provided that quick score Sapara referred to. Gerrity responded with a slam dunk, but Kelly's drive for two had the Eagles knocking on the door at 34-33.
Berea-Midpark head coach Duke Barther called a timeout with 5:46 left in the quarter. From that point on, the door was slammed shut as the Titans went on their run.
Free throws from Schuller and Alex Brown started the run, then sophomore Joey Bachie scored on a spinning layup down the lane to make it 38-33. A rebound for two by the 6-11 Gerrity forced Sapara to burn a timeout.
When play resumed, the home team's onslaught continued.
Brown scored on a drive to the hoop, then Schuller drained his third 3-pointer of the game. Bachie followed up with a trey of his own, leading to another Avon timeout. As the quarter ended, Gerrity took an inbounds pass and scored on a hook shot to make it 50-33, Titans.
Gerrity, who led all scorers with 19 points, scored the first points of the fourth quarter to make it 52-33. Kelly ended the run with a layup, but the Berea-Midpark lead quickly grew to 21 points, 58-37, on a rebound for two by Brown.
Brown finished the night with 13 points, while Schuller added 12. Gerrity had 14 rebounds as the Titans held a 41-25 edge on the glass.
"We knew we would have to try to keep the ball out of Brown's hands, or at least limit him from getting to the paint as much as we could," Sapara said.
"We knew Schuller was a good shooter, and that we'd have to be physical with Gerrity. We wanted to front him, try to be physical and push him off the block as long as our help side was there. A couple times in the second half, we were just a second late and they got the pass in for an easy layup," he said.
Kelly led the Eagles with 13 points, while fellow senior Jordan Lawrence chipped in with 12 points and six rebounds.
"I'm proud of our kids. We had a good week of practice, and we came in here focused and ready to go," Sapara said
"Berea-Midpark is a very talented team. We would of had to do everything darn near perfect to come out on top. Even in the second half, we didn't turn the ball over so much as it was them getting rebounds and going. They have the good post player inside, and it's hard for us to match up against that.
"We came a long way this year. We got a lot better. I thought our effort tonight was really good. We'll be ready to go next year. I think our kids will stay hungry, have a good off season and learn from their mistakes," he added.
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