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The Cats Head Into the Playoffs

By Danny Gibel '22 & Matt Kelly '22, 02/23/22, 11:00AM EST


After splitting the final two games of the regular season, the Basketball Cats are hoping that their season experience translates to a deep playoff push.

Saint Ignatius 57 Lutheran West 38

ROCKEY RIVER, Oh - Coming into their February 17 matchup, the Wildcats were again on the verge of dipping below .500. The Lutheran West Longhorns were ready to put the Wildcats one game away from their first losing season in years, coming off of a 12 game win streak that dated back to January 11. However, dominantly, the Wildcats pulled away early. Led by sophomore Matt Ellis and junior Braydn Szczepaniak, they put themselves at 12-11 with one more home game to play in the year.

    The new Wildcats started the first quarter trading occasional baskets with the Longhorns but made a push in the last few minutes to lead 19-11. The Wildcats nearly doubled their lead in the second and ended the first half 31-16.

Next, the Wildcats let Lutheran West nearly double their point total from 16 to 30 in the third quarter, but 18 points by the Wildcats still expanded their lead to 19, at 49-30. With a comfortable lead, the Wildcats played with new lineups, young guys on the roster and took their foot off the gas to end the game with an 18-point, 57-38 win. At 11-10, the Wildcats were guaranteed to be above .500 in the regular season.

Jonathan Effertz made his first return to action against the Longhorns since the St. Vincent-St. Mary game and was limited to eight minutes, playing the last 2 of each quarter until the fourth, where he came in with six minutes to play. In his shortened play, Effertz had a solid performance that has Wildcat fans expecting him to be back to full playmaking abilities for the playoffs. Although he only had three points and one steal, Effertz appeared more comfortable on offense and defense than ever.
Matt Ellis and Braydn Szczepaniak combined for 27 of the Wildcats' 57 and were named the SIBN Players of the Game. Both players earned the start in this game and went after the Longhorn defense early, contributing most of the Wildcats' 31 first-half points. Ellis shot 5-for-10 from the field and 3-for-5 from three and Szczepaniak hit a near-perfect 5-of-6 from the field, including 2-2 from three, showing off his ability to not just score in the paint, but to shoot very well also.
This game against the Longhorns featured, for the first time this year, a completely non-senior starting lineup. The sophomore trio of CJ Little and Carter Jackson, with sixth-man Ace Buckner, made up three spots, while the Wildcats offensive firepower in sophomore Braydn Szczepaniak and new big Owen Maruca filled in the other two. One of the most explosive, fastest, three-point shooting and youngest lineups of the year put together the third highest-scoring first quarter with 19 points.

Those five combined for 26 of the Cats' 57 points, 18 of 30 rebounds, 12 of 15 assists, and 6 of 13 steals in the game. Head Basketball Coach Cam Joyce, impressed with the power and performance, kept this lineup for the Wildcats' next game against Green.

Charlie Hyland and AJ Fletcher checked into the game together several times, appearing to be an intentional combination utilized by Coach Joyce. Although the duo only combined for five points and five rebounds, they came into the game at crucial points throughout and made their mark.

CJ Yarian, coming off the bench for one of a few times this year, had eight points, three rebounds, and one steal to the Cats' effort.

The Wildcats returned to Sullivan Gym for the final regular-season game against the Green Bulldogs on the following night.

Saint Ignatius 64 Green 66

OHIO CITY, Oh - The Wildcats entered their regular-season finale on Friday night with an 11-10 record, a major disappointment considering the expectations placed on this team, both by the players themselves and preseason rankings.  

After an impressive second half of the season in the 2020-2021 season, the Basketball Cats made a playoff run that ultimately ended in a heartbreaking loss at the hands of Westerville Central in the State Semifinal game in Dayton.  

With that, this year's squad set a goal to get back to Dayton and finish the journey that was started last season.

Now, with the playoffs beginning tonight, the Wildcats have completed a season-long gauntlet of a schedule, one of the toughest in Ohio. Notably, the Cats have squared off with Cathedral Prep (IN), Liberty (NV), Wheeler (GA), Saint Edward on two occasions, Sylvania Northview, Saint Vincent-Saint Mary, Brush and most recently, Green.  

Those who have been following the Wildcats throughout the season know that they lost in each of these games, several of them by only a slight margin. Securing wins late in the fourth quarter has been a weakness for the Cats all season. They are currently 0-5 in games decided by four points or less, including Friday night's loss to Green in overtime.

This unflattering stat will have to change in playoffs, where games seem to have a way of coming down to the wire.

The Wildcats maintained a love-hate relationship with their home floor throughout the regular season as it was the site of several heartbreaking losses. That relationship continued against Green on Friday night in one of the Wildcats' most exciting and fun to watch games in recent memory.  

The night began with the JV Wildcats ending their season with a perfect 21-0 record. This was the first-ever undefeated season for the Saint Ignatius JV team in program history. The players and coaches took a post-game picture to document the momentous occasion at half-court.  

Even with the tournament seeding already set, the matchup with Green was still a big game for the Wildcats. They had still yet to have that "signature victory" against a high-quality opponent and definitely had one in Green, the number 10 team in the state, according to the most recent AP Poll.   

Both teams got off to a slow start in the first quarter, with each side having just one basket apiece with 6:10 remaining. Both made baskets were three-pointers and the score was tied at 3-3.

Then, Green began to heat up offensively, going on an 8-2 run over the next two minutes and opening an 11-5 lead with 4:06 left in the first quarter. The Wildcats' only basket came on a floater by Buckner. Other than that, not many shots were being taken down at the Wildcats' end of the floor.

With 2:18 to go in the first quarter, Effertz nailed a corner triple off an assist by Yarian to cut the lead down to three.

In the last two minutes of the first quarter, it became clear that Green Forward Zack Oddo was the prominent scoring force for the Bulldogs. Oddo buried two deep three-pointers, one of them coming in the last five seconds of the first quarter. The late triple gave Green a 17-9 lead heading into the second quarter.

In the second, Ellis got things started for the Cats, hitting a three from the top of the arch off an assist from Yarian.  

Then the back and forth began between Saint Ignatius and Green. Both sides traded baskets consistently on each possession until Effertz knocked down a 23-footer to bring the Wildcats within three of the lead and forced Mark Kinsley to call a timeout with 5:50 left in the first half.

Ellis stayed hot in the second quarter; the sophomore buried a stepback triple to make the score 26-24 with the Cats down two points at the five-minute mark.  

The Bulldogs scored the following four points and after a mid-range jumper by Oddo to make it 30-24 coach Joyce called a timeout with 3:04 remaining in the first half. The Wildcats needed a momentum shift quickly, fearing Green to build their lead ahead of halftime.

The Cats got a quick three points from Shondo Green Jr. out of the timeout. Green caught a downcourt pass from Little and did not hesitate to pull the trigger. With #34's three-ball, they again pulled with three points of the lead.

Green also beat the buzzer at the end of the second quarter. Green corralled a pass from Little with two seconds on the game clock and effortlessly buried a mid-range jumper as time expired.

The Wildcats and the Bulldogs headed to halftime with Green still holding the lead. However, Saint Ignatius had cut it down to two points at 33-31.  

It took the first four minutes of the second half for both sides to get their bearings together on offense. The Wildcats and the Bulldogs were only able to score a combined nine points at the four-minute mark in the third quarter.

The first real spark for the Cats came with 3:51 remaining in the third quarter. After a second-chance basket by Trey Martin, Little got the inbound and flew down the floor. Little drew the defenders to the paint, at which point the sophomore point guard kicked it out to Ellis in the corner. Ellis, who was as surefire as they come from three-point range on Friday night, converted on the attempt and cut the lead down to 39-37. 

SIBN Players of the Game vs. Lutheran West: Braydn Szczepaniak and Matt Ellis

Szczepaniak scored the following four points for the Wildcats and eventually tied the game at 41 with 2:11 to go in the third quarter. It is clear that Szczepaniak is possibly playing the best basketball of his Saint Ignatius career, finishing the regular season with 21 combined points and is 3-of-3 on three-point shots in the last two games. The junior is playing a lot of basketball down in the paint, showing off his speed and athleticism while moving toward the basket.

Effertz tied the game up at 43 with a left-handed finish off the glass. Then, at the other end of the floor, Ellis poked a pass by Oddo into the air, which Buckner brought down.  

Buckner then ran the floor and drew in the defenders, all while Ellis snuck over to the corner. As Buckner reached the elbow, he shoveled passed the basketball over to Ellis, who, with all the confidence and composure in the world, drilled the corner three and held the release in the air for all of Sullivan Gym to see.

Ellis' three-pointer gave the Cats a 46-43 lead with 27.5 seconds left in the third quarter. As SIBN color analyst Matt Kelly pointed out, "He's got that clutch gene."

Martin converted on another second-chance opportunity at the other end to trim the lead down to one with two seconds left in the third quarter.

Ellis then took the inbound with half of a second on the clock and banked it in from beyond half court, in a similar fashion his buzzer-beater at the end of the third quarter in the last home game against Brush. The shot was immediately waved off by the referees, but waved off or not, the Wildcats oncw again had momentum at home heading into the fourth quarter with a 46-45 lead over Green.

The three-pointers kept falling for the Wildcats. This time it was Effertz on a catch and shoot just ten seconds into the fourth quarter. The senior sharpshooter gave the Cats a 49-45 lead.  

After a grueling offensive possession by Green that lasted nearly a minute, Oddo answered with a three of his own that cut Saint Ignatius' lead back down to one.

Outside the three-point arch, Fletcher pulled out a nasty crossover move that made Ben Pine of Green stumble across the hardwood. Fletcher then finished at the rim to bring the lead back to three points.

While the NBA Three-Point Contest did not take place until Saturday, the Wildcats put on a show of their own on Friday night. With 4:38 to go in the fourth quarter, Fletcher joined in on the fun, drilling a deep three right in front of his bench. The latest Wildcats three-pointer increased the lead up to six at 54-48, the largest of the game for the Cats.

Oddo continued to torment the Wildcats, hitting two more triples with 4:00 and 3:22 remaining respectively and cutting the lead down to one point. The four-year Varsity player for Green went on to finish with 27 points and was a constant offensive force for Green, accounting for 41% of his team's total points.

Oddo eventually tied the game and then gave Green the lead with two free throws after a foul committed by Yarian. After the two made free throws, the Bulldogs led the Wildcats 58-57 with 2:21 left in the game.

Buckner stormed down the lane on the next possession for the Cats and finished off the glass, putting just the right amount of finesse on the basketball as it rolled around the rim and through the net. The basket gave the lead back to the Blue and Gold with 1:44 remaining in the fourth.

After a timeout by Green with 1:34 to go, Oddo attempted another three-pointer, maybe his deepest one of the night, but to the surprise of everyone watching, he missed it long.

Buckner once again came up big for the Wildcats. After the missed shot by Oddo, the ball rolled out of bounds. Buckner grabbed the inbound pass, split defenders, and then dribbled coast-to-coast for the layup at the other end. The shot fell through the net with 57 seconds remaining.

With 28.3 seconds to go, Brady Rollyson drove right into the paint and banked one in off the glass, making it a one-point game with the Wildcats still leading 61-60.

The Bulldogs were then forced to foul and eventually sent Effertz to the line with 16 seconds on the clock. With nerves of steel, the senior sank both attempts and put the Cats up 63-60. Green got the ball back with 13.3 left in the fourth quarter.

Marc Adam received the inbound pass and bolted down the floor. After making his way inside the three-point line, Adam, with a bit of showmanship, tried to hit Oddo with a behind-the-back pass, which was promptly taken away by Effertz.

Then, the far-side referee blew his whistle and gave Green one last chance. A phantom travel violation was called on Effertz as two Green players were trying to foul the senior guard intentionally.  

Green had to briefly collect themselves and then inbound the ball for a last-ditch effort with no timeouts remaining. The ball went to the player everyone was expecting it to; Oddo dribbled out toward half court then darted back in the direction of the top of the three-point arc. Then, with 1.4 seconds on the clock, pulled the trigger on the three-ball and it went in as time expired. Of course, it did. It had been that kind of night at the Corner of W. 30th and Lorain.

So a fresh 4:00 went up on the scoreboards, and in person, fans and fans watching on the SIBN were treated to some free basketball.

Right after the tip, before the Wildcats even settled into their defense, Rollyson nailed a three-pointer to give the Bulldogs a 66-63 lead.

The overtime period did not live up to the hype of the previous four quarters as that three-ball by Rollyson would be all Green needed to secure the win. Ellis had an open shot from the corner with 2:04 to go; the shot looked good all the way but bounced twice off the inside of the rim and bounced out. A tough break for a shooter who had been locked in all night.

The next opportunity for the Wildcats came with just 2.9 seconds left. Effertz was fouled on a corner three and was set to shoot three free throws from the line, with the chance to tie the game at 66.

Effertz made the first attempt but missed the second one. They were now forced to intentionally miss in hopes of Yarian and Maruca grabbing the rebound and putting up a last-second shot.

Effertz missed the free throw off the right side of the rim, and it bounced into the hands of Yarian, whose fadeaway did not fall. Maruca grabbed the rebound and did get a shot off, but that attempt missed as well, solidified the win for Green with a final score of 66-64.

When it came down to it, both squads left everything they had on the floor and both teams deserved the win. The largest lead for Green was seven and the largest for the Wildcats was six. It was a back-and-forth battle from the start. Ultimately, the bounces and calls do not always go your way, and sometimes the other team can hit the final shot.  

Little finished with five points and five assists. Buckner had eight points. Fletcher added five points, including a three. On a career night, Ellis had 17 points on 4-of-6, shooting from three-point range. Szczepaniak had seven points. Effertz finished with 14 points on 3-of-5 shooting from three-point range. The Wildcats struggled on the boards as a team, grabbing only 14 total rebounds. The Blue and Gold also shot 51% from the field and a staggering 62.5% from three.  

The Basketball Cats are back in action tonight as they take on the 2-9 John Marshall Lawyers in the Sectional Final. Tip-off is set for 7:00 p.m. from Sullivan Gym. Wildcat fans can either watch the SIBN's live video coverage of the action or follow @SIHSSports on Twitter for in-game updates and highlights.