In a challenging road game after a difficult home loss to St. Edward, first-year head coach Cam Joyce reached into his bag of tricks.
The Wildcats' bench boss utilized a zone defense for much of Saturday's contest, and the result was a great victory. The Basketball Cats froze a very good Warren Harding, earning a 47-35 win in Trumbull County.
The Wildcats return with a 7-5 record and the team's third win in another team's gym this season.
"Great feeling. This is a really good team, they came in 6-1 at home," Joyce said. "I told our guys, 'Don't underestimate these guys, and don't get caught up thinking about last night. Last night is over, you gotta get ready for the next game. Take the motivation from losing last night and put it into getting a good win on the road.' It's always tough to win on the road, and I was really proud of the way the guys play."
From the jump, the Wildcats looked ready to play. Much of the hot start could be attributed to Chase Toppin.
The Wildcats' senior showcased fearlessness in slashing to the basket. Toppin scored at will, showing that few defenders can stop him when he's in the zone. The point guard tallied 10 of the 14 points scored by the Wildcats in the first quarter.
Coach Cam has been asking Toppin to be more aggressive, and his veteran leader answered the bell.
"I've been telling him, 'Be aggressive. No one can stand in front of you. The team needs you to score. He's so unselfish, he wants to get other guys involved. But if you start scoring, you're going to get assists naturally because you're going to pull the defense in. That will make it easier for us. Be aggressive, attack, and you'll be able to get assists and score,'" Joyce said. "We need that from him. He's a really good player and he showed that tonight."
The Raiders looked frustrated on offense in the early going, only scoring four points in the first eight minutes.
Thanks to a couple of 3-pointers, Warren Harding started to gain ground in the second quarter. But the Wildcats used some creative looks on offense to score. Toppin scored on a cut to the bucket and assisted a cool Emmett Hanna layup. Henry Raynor battled down low for some points, including two on a hook shot. Raynor also threw down a great 2-handed slam.
The Wildcats held a 24-17 lead at the break, as Warren Harding burned time off the clock during its final possession and failed to score.
The third quarter saw more of the same for the Wildcats – hard-earned buckets and strong defense. The Clevelanders maintained the lead despite physical play inside hampering the big men.
The visitors gripped a 36-27 advantage heading into the final quarter.
The Raiders dominated possession early in the fourth. Warren Harding passed and passed, poking and prodding at the Wildcats' defense but finding no clear openings. A pair of Wildcats' turnovers in the defensive end prevented the hosts from having a sustained possession for the first 80 seconds of the period.
With neither team making at progress, the Wildcats called a timeout at 5:39. The break rejuvenated the Wildcats.
After the timeout, the Raiders continued to throw up 3-pointers. But Warren Harding stayed cold, and the Wildcats held firm in grabbing defensive boards.
With 3:45 left, Raynor found himself with the ball and nearly trapped in a double-team. The junior passed it out to Griffin Hanna, who stood open behind the arc. The senior drilled the shot with no hesitation, ice in his veins. The shot proved to be a dagger. The Wildcats suddenly led by 12 points against a frigid-shooting Raiders ballclub.
In the final minutes, the Wildcats closed it out, preventing all but one Warren Harding 3-pointer. CJ Yarian added a layup late to set the margin at 47-35.
Toppin led the scoring for the second straight game with 16 points. The Wildcats did well enough on offense, but the defense told the story of the game.
"We knew they were quick and explosive. We knew we had a size advantage, so we felt that if we played zone and kept them out of the lane, they would have a tough time scoring over our length," Joyce said. "It took them out of a lot they wanted to do. I was able to scout some of their games. They run some really good sets. I decided not to go to man right away. We haven't shown a lot of zone this year, so I knew it would throw them off a bit. We've been working on it, and the guys went out there and executed it today."
The Wildcats will look to build on the nice win this week. Collinwood will visit Sullivan Gym in a Tuesday night tilt, varsity only at 7 pm. The Cats then host Cleveland Central Catholic on Saturday.