Story by Jim Horvath
Photos and video by Larry Bennet
After a slow start to their 2014-15 season, the Rocky River Pirates will have a tough time winning the final West Shore Conference championship.
But if Friday night's game with WSC contender Lakewood was any indication, they could have a big say in who does.
The Pirates jumped out to a big lead early and pulled off a 12-0 run in the third quarter to stun the Rangers, 71-60, on a night that threw the WSC race into a logjam. River's second conference win played a big part in sending the conference race into a four-way tie.
Bay and Lakewood, which came into Friday night tied for first, both lost. Bay, which had won nine in a row, saw a double digit lead slip away in an 86-79 loss to Elyria Catholic. In the meantime, Avon was putting a 66-48 beatdown on Midview.
Those results put Avon, Bay, EC and Lakewood atop the WSC standings, each at 5-3, with six games remaining. Midview and North Ridgeville, a 39-36 loser against Vermilion, are tied for second at 4-4.
Rocky River is just 2-6 in the WSC, but Pirates head coach Michael Murray felt the best was yet to come for his squad.
"Early in the year, we played well and lost some close games," said Murray, whose team moved to 5-7 overall. Then we went through a time where we had some kids injured and other kids getting sick.
"That's no excuse, but in getting kids back to practice, we've been able to work on things. You can see during the games that their confidence is much higher, and they're playing with a lot better pace offensively. We're able to create off the dribble and share the basketball more.
"We're able to spread things out more, and today, we were able to get the ball inside. We got our bigs some touches, and that hasn't happened in the past," he said.
Murray's Pirates got a lot of touches early and often. Down 3-0, River got three straight 3-pointers from junior guard Jack Corrigan. He connected from both corners and the right wing, prompting Lakewood head coach Phil Argento to call a timeout just 2:07 into the game.
But the break did nothing to slow down the Pirates, who connected on eight of 13 from the floor in the quarter with five treys, four of them from Corrigan. River led 21-11 after one quarter and 36-27 at the half.
"Getting off to a good start is important to us," Murray said. "We haven't done that early in the year, but the last couple of games we have.
"That's really helped us. We got off to a good start defensively as well, and that helped springboard us," Murray continued. "They're very hard to guard. Not only do they shoot it well, they drive it well and pass well. What we tried to do was make them take tough shots, and I thought we did that.
"They buried some in the first half with a hand in their face, but for the most part we stayed in front of them and made them take tough shots," he said.
The Rangers scored first in the third quarter on a reverse layup from senior Joe Malone. At 36-29, the visitors were still within range, but what happened in the next five-plus minutes changed all that.
River went on a 12-0 run, starting with an offensive rebound for two from junior Evan Nugent. A pair of free throws from junior Eric Jones and another 3-pointer from Corrigan had the Rangers back on their collective heels.
Jones hit on another drive, then the march to the free throw line began. The Pirates made just three of their next six attempts, but by then the lead had grown to 19 points, 48-29, with 2:11 left in the quarter.
Things got worse for the Rangers when River reached the bonus with 1:15 left in the third. For the game, the Pirates made 19 of 26 free throws to Lakewood's seven of 12. The home team made nine of 12 attempts in the game's final 3:10 to help close out the game.
After a lengthy post-game discussion in the Rangers' locker room, Argento didn't mince any words concerning his team's performance.
"We just had a very serious conversation with our guys about where they want to go, what they want to do and how they want to do it," he said.
"We played tonight like we've practiced, and that's a bigger issue for us. It trumps what Rocky River was doing," Argento said. "The things that every coach is trying to do in practices is to get better and show improvement in different phases of the game, whether it's offensive execution or defensive intensity. We haven't been getting better.
"At the beginning of the second round, you should be seeing guys who weren't doing things earlier in the year start to get it. We're not getting it, and that's a serious problem," he added.
Corrigan, thanks to a 16-point first half, wound up with a game-high 22 points.
"Jack has done an amazing job this year," Murray said.
"He's played in a couple of games where he's had maybe two reps of practice just from being sick," Murray recalled. "Then he had a high ankle sprain, but he's never complained. He missed a game, and he went through a stretch where he could barely practice.
"Now he's getting his reps in practice, and it's great to see that hard work pay off. The last couple of games, you've seen the Jack Corrigan that we knew we had," he added.
Jones was right behind Corrigan with 20 points. Pat Connors chipped in with eight points, while Jimmy Kinsley had seven rounds. River outrebounded the Rangers, 31-24.
For Lakewood, senior guard Nick Porter led the team with 15 points, while Justin McDonald came off the bench to add 12 points. Wes Gerhardt had nine points, while Malik Leisinger added eight points and six rebounds.
As for the WSC race, Argento took a wait and see approach.
"We'll see. We've got a big week coming up with Avon and Bay," Argento said. "If we're all on the same page, it'll look like it. If we aren't, it'll look like that too.
"But even when you buy in, and you're making that complete commitment and showing the mental toughness to overcome the negative things that happen, you still don't have a guarantee of winning. But you do have the guarantee of competing very, very hard. I thought they outplayed us in everything tonight.
"We had bad shot selection, a complete lack of effort rebounding, and you pay for that," he added.
(You can follow us on Twitter @BeAFanatic. And yes, we're there on Facebook too. Just click here to check out and like our page: BeAFanatic.com.)
Click on the cameras below to view Larry's photos and video highlights from this game: