OHIO CITY, Oh - In the Saint Ignatius Wildcats varsity basketball season, no game yet had been more highly anticipated by fans, coaches and players alike than the matchup on January 19 against the St. Edward Eagles. On a frigid Wednesday night, the Eagles traveled to Ohio City for the first of two matchups against the Wildcats in the 2021-2022 season. Both teams were looking for a momentous win to spring off into the remainder of their season. The Wildcats were coming off two consecutive losses in marquee games against Wheeler (GA) and Sylvania Northview.
In both these games, the Cats performed well below what many know they are capable of and the questions about performing in big games, when it matters most, were beginning to eat away at and drive the Wildcats. On the other hand, the Eagles were facing one of their most formidable opponents of the season, similar in caliber to their two closest games of the season, a four-point win against Brush one month earlier at home and their four-point loss three weeks ago against Reynoldsburg.
With the playoff picture beginning to take shape and teams eyeing those high seeds, both teams saw this game as a must-win. In the earlier games of the quadruple matchup, the Freshman Blue Wildcats won 60-32, while the Freshman Gold Wildcats lost 55-53. Then, right before the varsity matchup, the JV Wildcats won by an impressive score of 42-28, marking the seventh time this year that the JV Cats have held their opponent to less than 40 points.
The stage was more than set. Sullivan Gym was overflowing with spectators, both student sections had populated nearly half of each team's respective fan areas and the atmosphere was just what the varsity Wildcats had been waiting for. Before this St. Edward game on January 19th, the varsity team had not played at Sullivan Gym for 40 days, going back to the game against Lutheran East on December 10th.
CJ Yarian won the tip-off and Jonathan Effertz capitalized immediately with a deep three. The next score came on the Eagles' second possession when the Eagles found four second-chance opportunities and scored two to tie the game. Effertz responded with an extended two before Zylon Freer-Brown scored five apiece with a three-pointer. Braydn Szczepaniak and CJ Little scored back-to-back layups to go up, 9-5 Wildcats, but Brown for the Eagles came back with a mid-range shot to cut the lead to two.
In the first four minutes, blocks from Yarian, CJ Little and Carter Jackson were highlights of a sturdy defensive start. Jackson then hit two free throws, followed by Michael Bova cutting the lead to two with a flying-to-the-hoop layup and then Yarian had one of his best finishes of the year on a reverse layup, 13-9 Wildcats. Wendell Henry went up and under and Bova scored at the hoop next for the Eagles to tie the game. As the Wildcats lulled on offense to end the quarter, Henry and Bova went back-to-back yet again with a layup and a floater, and the quarter ended 17-13. Despite the Wildcats starting the game with great pace and efficiency on offense, errors and slow play brought the quarter to a finish on a three minute scoring drought and the wrong end of an 8-0 run.
The Wildcats struck first with Ace Buckner hitting Matt Ellis on the move in the fast break. Henry hit one free throw to add to the lead and Brown found himself open in the corner for three. Yarian came back on the other end, but the Eagles, via Dai-Yaan Solomon, kept it raining from beyond the arc. The Cats now faced their most significant deficit of the game so far, at 24-17. Yarian continued his impressive offensive showcase with a fading long two-pointer, 24-19. Cam Grant for the Eagles knocked down 2-of-2 at the line, 26-19 Eagles ahead. Despite a bad start, over the next 4:52, the Wildcats would hold the Eagles to just four points.
Effertz and Henry traded baskets, with Effertz from three and Henry down low, 28-22 Eagles. The Eagles, by this point, were face-guarding Effertz. On the next defensive possession, Timmy Ruddy had a ferocious block on Myles Reynolds and Effertz was fouled while shooting three and went on to hit all three crucial free throws to cut the lead to three. Danny Lavelle got on the board next for the Eagles with a two. Tristan Marshall scored the final points of the quarter with 2:29 to go.
At the end of one half, the game had lived up to expectations. Both teams were converting well, but the strength of each was in their defense. The Wildcats had six team blocks in the first half and a handful of steals while holding the Eagles to just 30 and the Eagles had an equally impressive first 16 minutes, keeping the Cats to 27. However, the game felt too calm. Either team would undoubtedly go on a big run to start the third quarter, and each's fans sensed they would need to build a big lead in the third to win the game in the end.
The third quarter started with a basket from Jair Knight. On the Wildcats' second possession, Effertz found a fast-break streaking Jackson, who was taken down with force by Bova. Jackson received only two free throws for what could have been ruled a flagrant foul, and he hit both. Jackson hit two more free throws for the Cats to cut the lead to one, 32-31. It seemed the Cats had momentum and on the next defensive possession, Effertz poked the ball free, Yarian hit the deck and found Little driving the length of the floor and, just as Little was about to go up for a finish, found Effertz wide open in the far corner. Keeping smooth on the catch and shoot, Effertz came up with the biggest shot of the season and the game, burying the corner three to give the Wildcats their first lead since the first quarter, 34-32.
The roof just about came off and "You are rattled" and "We can't hear you" chants arose from the Wildcats student section. Little came away with a steal off the inbound coming out of an Eagles timeout but turned the ball over to Knight, who threw down an emphatic dunk to erase the Cats' lead, 34-34. From this energetic start to the second half, the Wildcats went on a 12-6 run over the remaining 5:15 of the third quarter, starting with a three from Matt Ellis, his first points of the game and significant from the sophomore in the rivalry game. Effertz hit back-to-back from two and three to continue his reign of terror against the Eagles.
The Wildcats had their most significant lead, 42-34. But Ace Buckner decided that eight wasn't enough, hitting a fading mid-range to up 10 before coming back and stuffing Bova at the other end in what would have been a career highlight if not for a phantom foul call. Bova went to the foul line when two notable events occurred. First, Bova missed the front end of two shots and Jack Hudec reminded us on the broadcast that "The ball does not lie." Then, between the two shots, the Saint Ignatius' student section chanted "Overrated" at Michael Bova, breaking one of the most important unwritten rules of student sections.
Bova hit the subsequent free throw, Knight hit a layup and Knight drained two free throws to lower the deficit to four at 44-40, but the Wildcats ended the quarter with a layup from Yarian. The Wildcats outscored the Eagles 18-10 in the third to reverse the score from a three-point deficit to a five-point lead. This third quarter, up until the Eagles' run at the end, was the best and most exciting basketball the Wildcats played all season. Rocking and rolling on offense and defense, the Wildcats just had to maintain in the 4th.
The Wildcats scored three of the first four baskets in the fourth, with Yarian and Szczepaniak, 52-43. After an Eagles' timeout, the Wildcats forced a steal courtesy of Little, who just missed a dunk in transition but was followed by Ace Buckner, who again gave the Cats their most significant lead of the game at 11 with 3:59 to play.
From here, the Eagles went on a 12-0 run to end the game, with two free throws from Brown at 3:50, two free throws from Bova at 3:25, and next a three from Knight at 3:02. After a brief drought from both teams, Bova banked a step-back three with 0:50 remaining and came back off of a Wildcats turnover to hit a floater with 0:20 to play, the last score of the game. After a Wildcats' timeout with 12.4 seconds left, the draw-up fell apart and Little's turnaround jumper was just long. The Eagles finished with just what they needed in the last four minutes to steal the win and break the hearts in Sullivan, a 12-0 run to overcome an 11-point lead.
The loss at the cause of a struggle of a fourth-quarter was impossible to register as it happened and for a little while after. The Wildcats had played so well and seemed to dominate most of the game. But finishing the game and finishing every offensive and defensive possession was not executed well enough to earn a win against a high-level team. If the Wildcats can take the play, they performed in their good moments against the Eagles and apply that throughout the rest of their games; there will be a lot to look forward to.
The Wildcats were given a chance to rebound quickly three days later at Benedictine on Saturday night.
CLEVELAND, Oh - The Saint Ignatius Wildcats entered Saturday's game with a 6-6 record. They were in desperate need of a win to avoid losing their fourth straight game dating back to January 15.
Luckily for the Cats, they squared off with the Benedictine Bengals in their 13th game of the 2021-2022 campaign, a team they have done very well against in recent years.
That trend continued for the Basketball Cats, armed with a desire to get back in the win column, as they cruised to a 76-36 victory over the Bengals in Trueman Memorial Fieldhouse.
A massive win can go a long way for a basketball team, as Wildcat fans saw this exact scenario play out similarly with last year's varsity squad.
In the 2020-2021 season, the Wildcats lost their first of two games with the Saint Edward Eagles, precisely like this year. After that loss, the Cats won big against Maple Heights by a final score of 71-59 and then proceeded to rattle off a season-high eight straight victories.
So if history is to tell us anything about this Wildcats team, their best basketball may still be ahead of them.
The contest did not begin in the Wildcats' favor. They struggled to get the offense in rhythm without the ball-handling presence and facilitation of C.J. Little. The Cats won the opening tip-off and Ace Buckner, earning the starting nod at point guard, brought the ball down the floor and Ty'lan King immediately stole the ball and drove it the length of the court for an easy bucket.
Thanks to a couple more inside layups, Benedictine jumped out further to a 6-2 lead. The Bengals and Wildcats both created some open looks; the difference was that the home team's shots were going in.
With 3:47 remaining in the first quarter, Carter Jackson hit a deep three-pointer to cut the lead back down to one, but the first quarter dragged on slowly after that basket.
The following points for either team came with 1:49 left in the opening quarter. Jonathan Effertz got the Cats back on the board as he intercepted an inbound pass lobbed in the backcourt. By the time the senior gained control of the ball, he was directly under the rim and turned a forced turnover into an easy layup.
The Cats' offense roared to life after Effertz's basket as they finished the first quarter on a 5-2 run that began with A.J. Fletcher's three-point play down in the paint. Fletcher could maneuver himself inside and shrug off the contact as he got his shot and the ensuing free throw to fall.
"Get back in the win column; that's what we were thinking," explains Fletcher. "We knew that Benedictine was going to give us their best shot, so we had to come out ready to bring anything. That's what we did."
In the second quarter, Owen Maruca got a backdoor pass from Buckner and slammed it down hard over Tremaine Edwards. The 6'6" junior's dunk sent his teammates on the court and the bench into a frenzy.
Yarian did not want to let Maruca have all the fun as, several minutes later, the Hillsdale College commit blew past King and threw it down with two hands in transition. The jury is still out on which of the two dunks was better.
Then with 1:50 left in the second quarter, Charlie Hyland passed to a wide-open Shondo Green Jr. in the corner. Green pulled the trigger on the three-ball and buried it right in front of his former coach, Chris Salata '94. Salata coached Green during his freshman season on the JV team and is now the Head Basketball Coach of the Bengals.
"It was an amazing experience", Green says, "Salata and all the assistants, we got close my freshman year and it was nice to see that he got a head coaching job. It's amazing seeing us both grow up in our basketball careers."
The Wildcats never looked back after that. The offense began to find a groove as the Cats dropped 21 points in the second quarter. Comparatively, the Bengals only scored 11. On the heels of a solid first two quarters, the Wildcats took a 33-19 lead into the locker room at halftime.
The Blue and Gold picked up right where they left off in the early parts of the second half. Yarian drilled a three-pointer to blow the game wide open as the Cats now maintained a 19-point advantage with five minutes remaining in the third quarter.
A few minutes after Yarian's three-ball, Fletcher buried one of his own from three-point range to give the Wildcats a 48-27 lead. Fletcher boasts a team-best 53% three-point percentage this season.
Two of the Wildcats' guards off the bench, Fletcher and Matt Ellis, got some chemistry going between the two of them. In the third quarter, Ellis found Fletcher in transition for quick baskets on back-to-back possessions with two minutes left.
"It's just the guys around me that give me the opportunities I get, so all credit to them," says Fletcher, "They set me up; that's how I have most of my points, from assists from my guys."
The Wildcats had 22 assists against Benedictine, with five different players having multiple assists.
Braydn Szczepaniak dramatically ended the third quarter as he buried a three-pointer as the buzzer sounded. Just before the buzzer-beater, Szczepaniak took another three, which bounced off the rim and looked to be going out of bounds in the direction of the Wildcat bench. However, Ellis grabbed the ball before it landed out of bounds and dished to Szczepaniak, who promptly hit the three.
The Wildcats entered the fourth quarter with a 60-32 lead and quickly went through the remainder of the game, eventually activating the running clock, which occurs when one team takes a 30 point lead. The defense also played exceptionally well in the second half, as they only surrendered 17 points in the third and fourth quarters. Fueled by their 41 point second half, the Basketball Cats dominated the Bengals throughout much of the game and got their seventh win of the season.
Buckner scored eight points in his first-ever varsity start, with three rebounds, a team-high seven assists and three steals. Jackson finished with nine points, four rebounds, and two steals. Fletcher led the team with ten points two rebounds. Ellis had five points, four rebounds, four assists, and three steals. Szczepaniak added eight points and four rebounds. Yarian added six points, four boards, four assists, and two blocks. Green finished with nine points.
Next for the Wildcats is a triple-header matchup with the Villa Angela-St. Joseph Vikings back at Sullivan Gym. Freshman Gold plays at 4:00 p.m., JV plays at 5:30 p.m., and Varsity will tip-off at 7:00 p.m. The SIBN will have live video coverage for all three games and in-game updates on @SIHSSports.