Story by Jim Horvath
Photos and video by Larry Bennet
After a red-hot shooting performance in the first half, Oberlin was right where it wanted to be.
The youthful Phoenix held a 43-34 halftime lead against Patriot Athletic Conference front runner Lutheran West. They clearly had momentum on their side heading into the second half. In fact, Oberlin held the lead for the better part of three quarters.
But as the third quarter moved along, that momentum began to take a turn.
The Longhorns, thanks in part to a big night from senior forward Andrew O'Hara, cranked up the defensive intensity in the second half. They closed out the fourth quarter with a 19-4 run, pulling away for a 71-58 win over the Phoenix Tuesday night in an important Stripes Division contest.
With the win, Lutheran West maintained its share of the division lead with Columbia. Both teams ended the night at 9-2, with the Raiders taking down Brooklyn 63-31 on Tuesday night.
"Every game in the conference is a must win right now, especially our games on the road," said Lutheran West head coach Alan Januzzi, whose team outscored the Oberlin 37-15 in the second half.
"Oberlin is a young team. They've got some players, and a couple of kids who can really shoot the basketball," Januzzi said. "They've been giving some teams fits as of late, so we were a little concerned coming in.
"They're in a nothing-to-lose situation, and they can play spoiler, if you will," he said.
That looked to be the case early on as Oberlin sophomore Caleb Hughley drained three straight 3-pointers to give the Phoenix an early 9-6 lead. Another 3-pointer from senior Malcolm Allen closed out the quarter and put the home team ahead 23-12.
Hughley hit another trey late in the second quarter to make it 38-29, Phoenix. Senior Marvin Jackson then capped off the half with a 3-pointer to beat the buzzer and give his team its 43-34 halftime lead.
"They came out in first half a probably only missed five shots," said O'Hara, who already had 12 points and 12 rebounds in the half to help keep the Longhorns close. "They kept hitting everything.
"We were playing good defense, but they just kept making shots. There was nothing we could do," O'Hara said. "We missed a lot of layups early the first half, and that put us down a little bit. But we came out in the second half more aggressive. At halftime, we were down on ourselves.
"We knew we could win this game, but we needed to put more of an effort on defense. Once we turned up our defense, that really helped our offense a lot," he added.
The Longhorns did just that. They set the tone early in the third quarter, forcing three Oberlin turnovers in the first 1:40 of the half. As the turnovers mounted, the visitors were able to jump start their transition game.
When the third quarter buzzer sounded, Oberlin had committed 10 turnovers and made just two of 11 shot attempts. A 10-0 run to close out the quarter, capped off by an O'Hara fast break hoop, gave Lutheran West a slim 50-48 lead.
"That's been our assessment of our team the whole season," admitted Oberlin head coach Kurt Russell, whose team committed just six turnovers outside the third quarter.
"Every game, we've put together two quarters. We always seem to play well for two quarters. But in that second half, it seems like we get a little lackluster and we get behind a little bit.
"Lutheran West is a heck of a ball club. I'm proud of our kids. I thought we played hard. We just missed a lot of shots," he added.
The Phoenix, with Lutheran West continuing to dial up the defensive pressure, continued to miss shots in the fourth quarter as they made just four of 16 attempts. Still, a Donald Johnson bucket inside kept the Phoenix close, down just 57-56 halfway through the quarter.
But during that stretch, sophomore Dominic Januzzi was providing as added boost off the bench for the Longhonrs. He hit back-to-back threes from the right corner, then moments later scored again inside to give Lutheran West its biggest lead to that point, 65-56, with 1:20 left in the game.
"Those were big threes for us," coach Januzzi said. "He's confident taking those shots, and we needed them. I thought he played a great game coming off the bench. He got some big rebounds for us, made some big shots and made good decisions."
Johnson scored coming out of the timeout, but Lutheran West closed out the game with a 6-0 run. Sean Voiers and Clay Carper both cashed in on bonus opportunities from the free throw line, while Carper added another basket in between to ice the win.
But the big numbers on the night belonged to the 6-4 O'Hara, who poured in 21 points and grabbed 24 rebounds.
"I'm just doing whatever it takes to get the ball and move it down the court and get an easy bucket," O'Hara said.
"Every game is a big game for us, definitely. If we want this conference title, we've got to win out. We're not going to overlook anybody on our schedule. We're just going to keep playing strong, playing aggressive," he added.
"Andrew did a great job," Januzzi said. "He's such a smart player, and our offense has to go through him. When he's getting touches inside, I think we're very effective on offense.
"We wanted to crash the offensive boards, and I think we did a good job of that tonight. Good offensive rebounders know where the shots are going up and where to go to get position. Andrew's a great rebounder, and he came up big tonight," he said.
The Longhorns, despite their slow start offensively, wound up with a balanced attack. Januzzi finished with 13 points and four rebounds off the bench, while Voiers had 12 points, 10 of those in the second half. Carper had 11 points, while Adam Felten chipped in with 10.
Lutheran West won the board battle, 42-29.
For Oberlin, now 3-14 overall and 2-10 in the PAC, Hughley led the way with 20 points. Johnson, a 6-3 sophomore, added 15 points, while Carter and Jackson added eight and six points, respectively.
Russell felt his young team would continue to grow from the experience.
"You can't give a team like Lutheran West transition points," Russell said. "It's hard enough to stop them in the half court.
"But we are getting better. And that's one thing about our team: We never give up," Russell continued. "We're going to play until the end. The effort was there. We just missed some shots that really could have helped us there in the second half.
"We played hard and missed some shots, but I can live with that. I can't live with a team that doesn't play hard and put forth an effort. We're getting there. We have seven sophomores on varsity, so we'll get there one day," he added.
In the other locker room, Januzzi said his team's defensive effort made the difference in the second half.
"I was really happy with the way our kids kept their composure," Januzzi said. "They didn't pack it in. They didn't say 'we're on the road, and these guys are shooting the lights out.'
"We figured we needed to get some turnovers to create some offense, because we were struggling on the offensive end," Januzzi said. "We also wanted to attack the basket and get to the free throw line.
"I would have liked to knock down a few more free throws, but overall I felt we did a good job," he said.
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Click on the cameras below to view Larry's photos and video highlights from this game: