Story by Jim Horvath
Photos and video by Larry Bennet
With 5:34 left in the second quarter, Rocky River post player Tom McNamara got the ball inside and scored.
That fact alone wasn’t the big news. The fact that it was the Pirates’ first basket of the game was.
In the previous first 10:25 of the game, a Ricky Bremkamp free throw was all River was able to put on the scoreboard. Avon, despite some offensive challenges of its own, took full advantage and came away with a 36-28 West Shore Conference win Tuesday night.
“I was as puzzled as anybody,” admitted Pirates head coach Michael Murray, whose team scored just five points in the first half and made a paltry 10 of 37 field goal attempts for the game.
“That’s not a true indication of our kids,” Murray said. “I thought we corrected some things in the second half, but this is something you just can’t do on the road, to come out like that. We were lethargic and kind of slow.
“We just weren’t into the game from the start, and I don’t understand that. This is something we have to learn from right away,” he added.
It wasn’t as if Murray’s Pirates didn’t have anything to play for. They went into the game with a 3-0 record in the WSC, tying them with Lakewood for the lead. They now fall into a second-place tie with Avon, which improved to 4-1 overall under first-year head coach Kevin Sapara.
Lakewood woke up Wednesday morning all alone at the top of the WSC after its 63-54 win at Vermilion Tuesday night.
Little did anyone know that Brian Kelly’s 3-pointer from the right corner would give his Eagles the lead for good. After all, it was the first score of the game. But Kelly’s fast break hoop off a River turnover and another fast break score from Jordan Lawrence off another Pirate miscue had the home team up 7-0.
Bremkamp split a pair of free throws with 2:38 left in the first quarter to break the ice for the Pirates. But a short jumper by Lawrence off an out of bounds play gave Avon a 9-1 lead heading into the second quarter.
The Eagles didn’t get off a lot of shots against River’s defense, but they made them count. They hit four of seven, while the Pirates continured to flounder from the floor. For the half, River made just two of 17 shot attempts.
Avon made six of 15, but still had the lead at halftime, 17-5. That was more than enough as River’s offense continued to pass the ball rather than attack the basket.
“We were patient on defense as well,” Sapara said. “They were waiting for us to miss a back screen or make some other mistake so they could take advantage.
“We were disciplined. Our kids understood what they were trying to do. I’d like to see a little bit better effort on the defensive boards, but overall we got things done on defensively,” he added.
The visitors seemed to come to life in the third quarter, going on a 6-2 run to start the half. Freshman guard Eric Jones scored on a baseline drive, then senior Ryan McCrone - who was held scoreless in the first half - scored off a rebound. McNamara scored with another bucket inside, but then the Eagles responded with a run of their own.
Kelly hit a little baseline floater, then senior guard Cordell Winters on a fast break to push the lead back out to 12 at 23-11. A Jack Poyle jumper made it 25-11, giving the Eagles their biggest lead of the night.
Down 27-14, the Pirates fought back and got the Avon lead down to nine on a pair of McCrone free throws with 3:19 left. But the Eagles remained calm against the River press and got the lead back up to 11 as Winters scored all alone to make it 33-22.
River finished the game as cold fromt he floor as it started, making just two baskets in the final three-plus minutes. And those two scores came in the game’s final 40 seconds.
“I thought we waited around looking for things to happen rather than make things happen,” Murray said. “We played a lot latterally, from side to side, and not a lot to ward the basket.
“Once we got off to that kind of start, I think the kids looked at each other waiting for somebody to pick them up. Nobody really stepped up, and that was tough,” he added.
McCrone finished with 10 points and eight rebounds, but no other Pirates scored more than four points. River did manage to win the rebounding battle, 26-18.
Avon was led by Poyle, who popped in 11 points. The Eagles, who made 14 of 32 shots, also got eight points from Winters and another seven from Kelly.
“They were 3-0 coming in and we were a game behind,” Sapara said. “I know it’s still very early in the season, but this win was important. If you have goals to do something in the league, then you have to take care of business, especialy at home against a team like River. We did what we needed to do.
“Still, we know we have to play them again. I’m expecting another battle with those guys because they’re a very good team. McCrone is a heck of a player and a very good shooter. I thought Winters and Ralph Smith did a great job defending him and trying to wear him down.
“When a team is down like that and you’re able to take the ball out of the hands of their best player, it makes things a lot easier,” he added.