ELYRIA, Oh - Already through two games of the playoffs and with four more to go until the final four, the Wildcats found themselves in the District Semifinal against Medina Highland on Wednesday, March 2nd. Looking to tie their longest win streak of the year, keep the season alive and move on to the District Final.
The Wildcats played fast, dominated on defense, and shot tremendously well. In the end, the Wildcats moved on to game four of a potential eight in the postseason, coming away with a convincing win of 65-39.
As has come to be expected from the Wildcats this season with many shifting and experimenting lineups, the starting five on Wednesday night were almost new to each other, playing just their second game of the season as a starting unit. Sophomore point guard CJ Little, senior shooting guard Jonathan Effertz, sophomore forward Ace Buckner, junior forward Braydn Szczepaniak and junior center Owen Maruca as starters bring a level of eagerness and aggression.
In these playoffs, Buckner and Szczepaniak have shown that they want to be the guys making plays for the Wildcats. Both the sophomore and junior are among the best on the Wildcats at creating their shots, Buckner via the drive and finish and Szczepaniak most often on offensive rebounds or a creative slash to the basket. These two can be dangerous when you add in Little's pure facilitator role. In the other two spots, Effertz needs almost no explanation, but his offensive capability to shoot the three and facilitate are what have made him the Wildcats' go-to guy for a big late-game three and he has truly become the leader of this team. When Effertz is playing well, the whole team plays well.
Finally, Owen Maruca has earned his way into the starting roster with how he truly plays the big-man role well. He is adept at timing rebounds and playing tactically sound and foul-free defense against opponents who may outsize him. These five, as well as virtually any 5 for the Cats on the floor, have also risen their level of team-focused defense in the playoffs and play impeccably as a unit. Coming out almost always in man-to-man, the Wildcats can play extremely tight on-ball and off-ball defense while always being available to help. Very few outside shots are ever left open over 32 minutes against the Cats, while underneath the basket is generally well-guarded, but slip-ups are more common than on the perimeter.
With the student section behind Highland's basket to start, dressed in business on top and casual on the bottom, Maruca won the tipoff for the Cats, but the Wildcats went down 7-0 early. Buckner then scored 7 of the Cats' 10 straight and Effertz hit a three to make it 10-7. Highland came back with three and two free throws, but the Wildcats ended quarter one on a 7-0 run, all courtesy of AJ Fletcher, two 2-pointers, a three and a block. Effertz's last-second three couldn't go, and the Wildcats led 17-12 after one.
The second quarter was much slower on offense for each team. The Wildcats received a free throw from Fletcher, a step-back three from Buckner, a layup off the rebound by Little, and a contested three from Effertz. Meanwhile, they conceded only six points to Highland, giving the Wildcats the halftime lead of 28-18. Through the first 16 minutes, the Wildcats played Highland much closer in the score than they should have been. There were a few turnovers, only three, but poor possessions on offense mostly kept Highland within only a few possessions at the half.
Coming into the third, the Cats focused on stretching the lead. Highland scored first, but Szczepaniak came back immediately with a solid take for a basket before being fouled and making 1-of-2 free throws. Buckner scored on the fast break from his steal and Maruca stole the ball again, which went to Effertz streaking down, who gave it right back to Maruca before finding Little wide open, cutting to the block for a two and-one.
Little hit the line next for the free throw and sunk it. Effertz, for the second time this game, found a rebound from his shot and made a play from it, dishing it to Maruca in the corner for three. The Wildcats were torching here to start the third and Effertz capped off the scoring flurry with a deep three and the Cats were up 37-20.
Highland hit a three and Ace Buckner had another signature swat on their next possession, this time on Highland's Griffin Albright. Albright hit two from the line after two scoreless possessions from each team, now 37-25, still for the Cats. Highland matched a Fletcher layup with a layup from Albright in the last two minutes, but Matt Ellis' pair of threes, Fletcher's two and Yarian's two were only met with a two and a three by Highland. The Wildcats had stretched their halftime lead of 10 to 17, thanks to a 21-point quarter on offense while only giving up 14 on defense.
Over the last eight minutes of the District Semifinal, the Wildcats played similarly to the third quarter, controlling both sides of the ball, hitting inside shots from Effertz, Szczepaniak, Little, Buckner, Charlie Hyland, Sam Springer, Rakyi Davis, and two free throws from Yarian. Tristan Marshall and Timmy Ruddy combined for three straight blocks on Highland in the final minute of play.
In the end, the Cats won 65-39 and advanced to the District Final against Brunswick High School. Buckner scored 14, Fletcher 10, Effertz 8, Little 7, 6 from Ellis and Yarian, Szczepaniak and Maruca with 4. Maruca had eight rebounds, Effertz and Yarian with four and Little and Szczepaniak with three. Little, Effertz, and Maruca led with four assists, while Marshall led the team in blocks with three. The Wildcats combined for nine steals and only five turnovers. The Wildcats shot 52% from the field, 44% from the three-point line and 75% from the free-throw line.
The Wildcats matched up with Brunswick in the District Final from Elyria Catholic High School the following Saturday night.
ELYRIA, Oh - The Wildcats entered the District Final game on Saturday seeking to win back-to-back District titles for the first time since coach Brian Becker's '77 Cats did it six consecutive times from 1998-2003. The Basketball Cats seemed to be getting hot at just the right time, especially after another convincing win against Medina Highland.
On Thursday night, the Brunswick Blue Devils defeated the Olmsted Falls Bulldogs 60-57 in the other semifinal game in the Elyria District. With that, the Blue Devils were locked in as the opponent for Wildcats Saturday.
Brunswick, who maintained a 19-7 record, was no slouch of a team. By the time the final buzzer sounded on Saturday, the Blue Devils had given the Cats one of the most challenging and most intense games all season. Emotions ran high all night long, both on the court and the sidelines.
The SIBN has interviewed numerous players throughout the last couple of wins and all of them have spoken of the increased energy in the locker room.
"It feels completely different," says sophomore guard Ace Buckner postgame on Wednesday. "Everyone wants to get to the State Championship. We have a vision and we want to complete it."
The atmosphere inside Elyria Catholic's "Colosseum" was also completely different. Both teams had sizable fans on either side of the court, while the Wildcats were backed by one of the largest student sections all year outside of the St. Edward games.
After each roster was announced, both starting lineups took the floor. Coach Joyce sent out Owen Maruca to play the five once again. Buckner was also starting, with Joyce not wanting to thrust Carter Jackson back into the starting lineup, having missed the previous game.
The Wildcats got out to a blazing hot start, going up 8-2 after just two minutes of play. After that, however, the Saint Ignatius offense stalled out and Brunswick capitalized.
The Blue Devils hit several three-pointers and had soon taken a 16-13 lead at the two-minute mark in the first quarter. It did not stop there either; Brunswick continued to power ahead and had a 24-16 lead with 3.5 seconds remaining.
Jackson then drilled a buzzer-beater three-ball to bring the score to 24-19 and somewhat salvage the first quarter. The Wildcats scored eight points in the first two minutes, then only eight more over the last six.
Jackson began to heat up on offense in the second quarter and was well on his way to a career night. Jackson scored 12 of the 19 second-quarter points for the Wildcats en route to a 15 point first half.
The Wildcats and Blue Devils battled back and forth for the lead throughout the entire second quarter. Neither team could build up a lead greater than two or three points. CJ Yarian changed that for the Cats. The 6'10" senior nailed a high-arching three-ball with under 30 seconds remaining in the second quarter that gave his squad a 38-33 lead heading into halftime.
Zach Eyssen stormed out of the locker room and scored the first seven points of the second half for Brunswick. Eyssen's third-quarter surge gave the Blue Devils a 40-38 lead with six minutes remaining in the quarter.
The game was still neck and neck several minutes later. After Brayden Hamilton buried a three-pointer over the outstretched arm of Little, Joyce then called a timeout with 3:53 to go in the third quarter.
Jackson continued an incredible night with one of the most significant sequences in the game that came with 2:33 left in the third quarter. Jackson drew a charge as Thomas Krizsa pushed off the sophomore. Then, Jackson committed a turnover as he tried to pass the ball over to Buckner. Cameron Cruz was the Blue Devil that took the ball away and nearly drove coast to coast for the easy layup. However, Jackson was tailing him the whole way down the hardwood and as Cruz put the ball in the air, Jackson blocked him against the glass.
The rebound was grabbed by Little, who, using his speed, actually did go coast to coast for the layup at the other end. After the chaos settled down, the Wildcats possessed a 49-45 lead, which was monumental at the time.
Hamilton, who would finish 5-11 from three-point range, drilled another trifecta to bring Brunswick back within one point of the lead. That three-ball by Hamilton was the biggest of his career because he surpassed 1000 career points with that shot, which is a rare accomplishment that a select few high school athletes attain.
The Blue Devils were not letting the Wildcats pull away in the second half and played the Blue and Gold extremely tough. The style of play on the floor resembled everything that a rivalry game would have.
The players were aggressive all night long; not one was afraid to show their emotions. It culminated in a technical foul assessed to Hamilton after he shoved Jackson in the chest after a timeout.
The technical resulted in a four-point swing favoring the Wildcats, giving them a 53-48 lead with under a minute to go in the third quarter. Fletcher sank both of the ensuing free throws and Jackson banked home a putback off a missed layup by Matt Ellis.
In the final seconds of what had been an eventful third quarter, Buckner buried a 23.5 footer to beat the buzzer and gave the Cats a 56-50 lead. The six-point advantage was the largest for the Blue and Gold since halftime.
The same offenses that had scored 15 points apiece in the third quarter struggled to get the ball through the net early in the fourth quarter.
The Wildcats opened up a 60-53 lead with 3:50 left as Jackson rattled home a mid-range jumper right over Cruz. Jackson was the X-factor for the Cats on Saturday; the Blue and Gold might not be heading to the Regional Semifinals if it was not for the second-year varsity Wildcat.
The lead eventually got up to eight with the time on the clock ever draining away, but the Blue Devils were not about to be sent home without a fight.
Cruz nailed two clutch three-pointers that cut the Wildcats' lead down to five with 1:36 to play.
Fletcher responded by sneaking behind the Brunswick defense with a back door drive right to the basket. Wednesday's SIBN Player of the Game gave the Wildcats a 66-59 lead with just 1:26 left to play.
The Blue Devils had five fouls to give before the Wildcats would shoot free throws, and they used every single one of them, which brought the final minute of the contest to a grinding halt.
Brunswick was able to get a three-pointer off but could not cut the lead to under five points. After the seventh team foul, Effertz toed the stripe and sank two free throws to put the District Final on ice. This win for the Basketball Cats was one of the most earned victories of the year and the team deserved it for how they fought from wire to wire.
"Happy, just so happy," says Jackson. "We wanted to go back to back [district titles], haven't done it in a while. Now we have to go to Regionals and do that."
Jackson led the Wildcats on Saturday. The Solon native scored a career-high 24 points with three assists, two blocks and two charges drawn. Jackson was also 3/3 for beyond the three-point arch. The Basketball Cats will continue to be led by Jackson for years to come as he will be at the forefront of a core group of sophomores made up of: Little, Buckner, Ellis, Sean Martin and Sam Springer.
The supporting cast for the Wildcats included: Buckner with 10 points and three rebounds, Fletcher with six points and a steal, Braydn Szczepaniak with eight points and three rebounds, Effertz with 13 points on 3/7 from three-point range. Little also contributed a team-high six rebounds and nine assists to go along with his four points.
The Wildcats shot 47% from the floor as a team and finished shooting an impressive 47% from deep. The Cats also shot 7-of-9 (78%) from the free-throw line, a solid figure considering where those numbers have been this season.
The Men of Ohio City now set their sights on the Regional Semifinal for the second straight year. The Wildcats (15-11) will be traveling to the MACC Center at Kent State University, where they will take on the Cleveland Heights Tigers (19-6) at 7:00 p.m. on Wednesday.
"It feels good, but at the same time, we still have to lock in and can't take them [Cleveland Heights] lightly," says Jackson when asked about how it feels to play the Tigers twice.
In their previous match-up this season, the Wildcats made the trip to Cleveland Heights and defeated the Tigers 57-50 back on January 8th. They ran out to a 30-16 lead at the half but allowed the Tigers to claw their way back into the game in the second half. The Cats were hindered by their 18 turnovers and lack of outside shooting, going only 3-of-9 from three. They have much improved in both such departments since.
The SIBN will have live video coverage from Kent State and in-game updates and highlights on @SIHSSports on Twitter.
To the students: The student section was incredible this past weekend and when out in full force, it is a force to be reckoned with. Having a pack section makes all the difference for our classmates competing on the hardwood. So, if Saint Ignatius is home to the "rowdiest student section in the nation," let's go out and prove it on Wednesday night. Check out @IgnatiusSpirit on Twitter and @sihs.destruction on Instagram for the student section theme before Wednesday.