Playing the second game of a back-to-back is never an easy task. That's particularly true when you played your rival in the first game.
On Friday evening, the Saint Ignatius varsity basketball team conquered its toughest foe of the season in rival St. Edward. The triumph marked the emotional highpoint of the season to date, as the Wildcats broke the Eagles' 5-game winning streak in the series, and avenged a 23-point loss earlier in the season.
On Saturday night, the Wildcats hit the road, heading to Beachwood to play a tough Bison team.
Overcoming soreness and fatigue, the Wildcats overcame a 8-point deficit in the final 8 minutes, gritting out a 56-54 victory over Beachwood in dramatic fashion.
As one might expect, the Wildcats experienced some trouble in the early going. The visitors struggled to score consistently, battling soreness and some emotional fatigue.
Head Coach Brian Becker '77 went to his bench early in the game, relying on his supporting cast to do some work. Jonathan Effertz came off the bench with 4 points, including a nice 3-pointer off an inbound. Wilson Young hit a nice corner three, too, keeping the Wildcats within one at the end of the first, 13-12.
The Wildcats enjoyed some success in the transition game in the second, as Connor Cmiel chipped in a bucket, as did a few others. Kevin Davet tallied four points, two on free throws and two on a shot from in close.
As for Beachwood, Jayson Woodrich hit three free throws following a foul from behind the arc, while Scott Newkirk buried a pair of corner threes for the Bison. The hosts owned a narrow 24-22 advantage at half.
Behind a great effort by Jimmie Mitchell, Beachwood owned the third quarter. Mitchell scored 10 points, all 2-pointers, and Woodrich hit a pair of shots to lead the Bison to a big 20-point quarter. Six different Wildcats scored, including Connor Cmiel and Nunez from behind the arc. But the 14-point output left the Wildcats behind, 44-36, entering the final stanza.
The Wildcats turned things around in the fourth quarter.
The men of Ohio City began to dominate on defense and hit open looks from near the rim. A switch in style on defense closed the gap and allowed the Wildcats to roll to a 15-3 run in the fourth.
"We went from our man-to-man to a little half-court trap," Coach Becker said. "It's kind of the shotgun approach. I want to try to do different things. We were tired in the first half, so I didn't do any of that. I watched it against Benedictine and John Marshall and we did a good job with it. You create different angles, different passing angles. We got some tips and some steals, were able to create a little energy, and make a couple of quick hoops and get back on track."
Davet's finishes at the hoop made the difference. Davet converted four times from the post, as his teammates looked for him inside.
Even as Beachwood surrounded him with 2-3 players, Davet's 6'9 frame allowed him to leap over his competitors and get the ball in the bucket.
"A lot of times, when I have 2-3 guys on me, I have to kick it out, because there will be an open man," Davet said. "But if I'm right there, I'm going to put it up. It's all about timing and positioning on the floor."
Henry Raynor, Chase Toppin, and Nunez tossed in points to keep the comeback rolling. The Wildcats retook the lead and owned a narrow margin on the scoreboard, 51-47, as Beachwood called a full timeout with 1:52 left.
The final stage of the game proved to be thrilling. Woodrich hit a trio of 3-pointers in the final few minutes to keep the Bison right in the game. Even as the Wildcats shadowed him and placed a hand in his face, Woodrich calmly sank treys.
Woodrich tied the game at 53 with 19.2 seconds left. The Wildcats called a timeout to call a play.
In the ensuing possession, Toppin brought the ball up. The Wildcats passed the ball around before giving it to back to Toppin. The junior drove the lane and found Nunez open in the far side corner. The talented guard swished a beautifully clutch shot and gave the Wildcats a 56-53 lead with 8 seconds left to play.
"Danny knows he has the green light," Becker said. "The way we designed the play was that Henry screened for Chase, and for Chase to go make a play and get into the seam. You've got Nunez on your right, Davet on your left, or you can go and finish it. Get your best guy the ball down the stretch and let him make the decision. I can live and die with Chase making decisions like that."
Off the inbound, the Wildcats fouled Woodrich. Beachwood's star, who finished with 24 points, hit one free throw before intentionally missing the second. The Wildcats rebounded and Beachwood fouled. The Wildcats tried to inbound with 3 seconds left, but were not able to inbound. As a result, Beachwood earned a chance to inbound, but could not create a good shot in the end, leaving the final score at 56-54 Wildcats.
The Wildcats also played Beachwood last year after facing St. Edward, also walking away with a 2-point win. Many teams would not play the next day after a rivalry contest. So why did the Wildcats?
"We're going to have play games like this during the playoffs," answered Davet, who tallied a team-high 16 points. "We'll have two games in very close proximity, high-intensity games. This was a grind-it-out win. This is a foreshadowing of what we'll have to deal with in the playoffs. I think we'll get better as we continue."
Having won seven in a row, this gritty Wildcats team looks to be peaking at the perfect time for the postseason.
Coach Becker is certainly pleased with his team.
"They came out and played hard. It's obviously a big emotional letdown from St. Ed's," Becker said. "We needed our bench to come out and contribute and they did when we needed down the stretch. It was tough emotionally, I think we were more emotionally drained than physically. But we came out and competed. [Woodrich] is legit. He's a really, really good player. We needed to defend a little better, but to win two games, especially the one after the Ed's game, you check the box and you move on. It's a learning experience, but it's one we needed."
Next up for the Wildcats is a home showdown with Erie Cathedral Prep on Friday night, a 5:30 pm JV tipoff followed by varsity at about 7 pm.But before then, playoff seeding and brackets will be announced, likely on Monday. The Wildcats are in the Lakewood district this year. Saint Ignatius and St. Edward are likely to receive top seeds. Other schools in the district are Brecksville-Broadview Heights, Brunswick, John Marshall, Lincoln West, Max Hayes, Medina, Normandy, North Royalton, Parma, Rhodes, and Valley Forge.