Story by Lisa Gayle Grayson
Photos by David Richard
Video by Rob Trautman
Lutheran West's boys basketball program has established its version of a dynasty where the Patriot Athletic Conference Stripes Division is concerned.
On Friday evening, the Longhorns further solidified their reputation in the conference by coming out ahead, 44-42, in the battle of defenses with Columbia. The road win gave Lutheran West a one game lead over the Raiders and clinched a share of its second-straight Stripes Division championship.
"When you're playing Columbia, the concern always is that they're going to come back, hit threes and get that momentum going," said Lutheran West head coach Alan Januzzi, whose team moved to 13-2 in the division and 16-4 overall.
"Really, it came down to defense. When you get to this time of the year, that's really what it comes down to. Our kids defended well. They executed when they needed to, they got buckets when they needed to," he said.
Both teams entered the contest with matching two-loss conference marks, but Lutheran West endured the Raiders' fourth-quarter press to leave Columbia Station with no less than a share of the division crown.
"We got down a little bit," Columbia head coach Larry Babics said.
"We knew they were kind of holding the ball out, and they made us chase them around. At that point, we had to try to get something going. We did a decent job.
"We're really not a pressing team," he added.
Since the conference was established 10 years ago, the Longhorns have finished atop the standings five times. This winter is the first time, however, they have won the Stripes crown in back-to-back seasons since winning three consecutive titles from 2005-08.
Lutheran West also won the division during the 2010-11 campaign.
"It feels good to get a couple of conference championships back at West," said Longhorn senior Andrew O'Hara, the game's leading scorer with 19 points.
While the Longhorns won the previous contest 81-73 on Jan. 16, this game was much more closely contested. Columbia sophomore Taylor Beck's 3-pointer from the far right corner at the game's final buzzer capped a hard-fought fourth quarter by both programs.
"I thought the guys that came off the bench, Taylor Beck especially, did a good job, got us some energy, and kept us close," Babics said, "just not close enough."
Lutheran West entered the final period ahead 30-23, but the Raiders chipped away at the Longhorns' lead. Columbia scored seven of its first nine points that quarter from the charity stripe.
Momentum nearly swayed in the Raiders' favor when senior Brian Hershey, who finished with seven points, knocked in a trey. That moved the Raiders to within three, 41-38, with 3:13 to go.
But Lutheran West managed to keep its distance. On its next possession, Adam Felton's bucket from Nick Knudsen at 2:29 proved just enough to keep the Longhorns ahead.
While the Longhorns went 0-for-2 from the field and 1-of-4 down the stretch, Dominic Januzzi (seven points) made his second of two free throws. Columbia helped the visitors' cause when it came up short in its rally.
David Delahunty, the PAC's leading scorer at 19.6 points per game, was held to a team-high 10 points and missed a couple of 3-pointers. Then Brandon Heidecker, sixth in the PAC with 14.5 points per game, made only the second of his two foul shots as he finished the night with seven points.
"We really focused on chasing them off the line and defending Delahunty," Januzzi said.
It took both teams 16 minutes to get rolling as they entered the intermission tied at 16-16. Then, Lutheran West came out hot in the third quarter and outscored the Raiders 14-7. The Longhorns went on an 11-3 run in the initial three minutes that period.
All of Columbia's points came via free throws. Heidecker's basket from Delahunty's dish at 4:19 was the Raiders' first field goal of the third. That narrowed Lutheran West's lead to 28-21.
"We put ourselves in a bad spot that third quarter," said Babics, whose team fell to 13-7 overall and 12-3 in the Stripes Division.
"We just let our emotions get to us. You can't lose your composure in these types of games," he said.
Despite O'Hara scoring Lutheran West's first 10 points, the Raiders led the game 14-12 after the first eight minutes of play. They then leaned on their defense in the second period.
Columbia's only score of the period came on a put back from Heidecker, who finished with seven rebounds.
"We know he's their player," Babics said of O'Hara. "He usually gets going early.
'If he's hitting, you've got to get a little bit closer to him and make him work a little harder. He's a very good player," he said.
The Raiders did just that as they forced O'Hara and the rest of the Lutheran West players outside. The Longhorns worked the perimeter, but went 2-of-9 from the field and missed all four 3-point attempts.
"I was just taking open shots in the first quarter," O'Hara said. "The second quarter, they weren't falling so I kind of shied away a little bit."
Fortunately for O'Hara and the Longhorns, Columbia did not do much better shooting-wise as Heidecker's bucket came with 2:38 left in the first half.
"It feels good," Januzzi said of the win. "I'm happy for the kids.
"When you win or lose close games, there are a lot of things that are out of your control. A lot of it is luck, a lot of it is a bounce here in a game like this.
"These two teams are still even, regardless, even though we've beaten them twice," he added.
Lutheran West will look to clinch the outright Stripes Division title Tuesday night when they travel to Brooklyn.
(Feel free to follow us on Twitter @BeAFanatic. And yes, we're there for you on Facebook as well. Just click here to check out and like our page: BeAFanatic.com.)
Click on the cameras below to view David's photos and Rob's video highlights from this game: