Story by Jim Horvath
Photos and video by Larry Bennet
Throughout the regular season, the Bay Rockets have been known for their high-powered offense.
Friday night, the Lutheran West Longhorns got an up-close-and-personal look at what those same Rockets were capable of defensively.
From the opening tip, Bay turned things up a notch or two on the defensive end. When the smoke cleared, the visiting Rockets left a packed Wittrock Gymnasium with a convincing 68-48 win over the Longhorns in the regular season finale between the two conference champions.
Lutheran West, back-to-back champions of the Patriot Athletic Conference Stripes Division, closed out its season at 17-5. The Longhorns shot just 34 percent from the floor for the game as the Rockets ratcheted up the pressure from baseline to baseline.
"You've got to put the ball in the basket against a team like this, then get back on defense" said Lutheran West head coach Alan Januzzi, whose team dropped its first home game in two seasons.
"We didn't do that early on. We did want to go inside, but we weren't able to do that. That's a tough team to come back on with all of the offensive weapons they have, along with the their good guard play. They're difficult to pressure.
"In order for us to have a chance, we had to keep it close the whole way through," he said.
The Longhorns fell behind early, making just four of 12 shots in the first quarter. The Rockets, on the other hand, were their usual selves. They hit 10 of 18 shots, three of them 3-pointers, to take a commanding 24-8 lead after the first eight minutes of play.
Lutheran West fared a bit better in the second quarter, but still trailed 34-20 at the half. The Rocket defense shut off the inside, then began to close out on the Longhorns' outside attack despite 3-pointers from Sean Voiers and Dominic Januzzi.
"We knew this game would be tough coming in," said Bay head coach Jared Shetzer, whose West Shore Conference co-champions closed out the regular season at 15-7
"Lutheran West is a well-coached team, and they've won a lot of games," Shetzer continued. "Regardless of what conference they play in or who they play, you still have to win the game and they've won a lot of them."
Shetzer said his team's big first-half lead was a result of improved defensive play.
"Defensively, we did something tonight that we've been preaching all year: get deflections, get deflections, get deflections. That's what we've been talking about since day one.
"Our kids finally did that tonight. They got deflections, pressured the way they were supposed to, kept their composure and rotated the way they were supposed to. Those are some things that we, for whatever reason, have gotten away from.
"Tonight, we did the things we were supposed to do defensively," he added.
The Rockets continued to do just that to start the second half. They forced five turnovers in the first two minutes of the third quarter to push their lead toward the 20-point plateau.
Rex Sunahara scored on a steal, then Brandon Morriss scored on a pair of free throws as a result of three Longhorn miscues. A Januzzi 3-pointer briefly stopped the Rocket run, but a Morriss bucket inside, a steal for two from Cole Gergye and a 3-pointer from John Koz made it 45-23 with just under six minutes left in the frame.
"That's uncharacteristic of us," said Coach Januzzi, whose team turned the ball over eight times in the quarter. "I'm not really sure what was happening there.
"We just threw some bad passes, plain and simple. But again, the physicality of that team, their shooting ability and depth made it tough. If we're going to play them several times, we've got to keep them in the half court.
"They were trying to pressure us to speed us up. We wound up coming down and taking quick shots, which is not what we wanted to do. Even down 14, we still wanted to be patient on offense and try to chip away at it," he said.
Shetzer said he wanted his team to push the envelope a bit defensively to start the second half.
"You want to see guys get up in the passing lanes," Shetzer said. "We've got all these athletic guys, and tonight they finally got up in the passing lanes rather than sitting back and being comfortable.
"In the second half, we came out and forced some turnovers. We got our hands on some loose balls and took advantage. We were able to push the lead out and kept it there for the rest of the game," he said.
Bay led 52-32 at the end of the quarter, but saw its lead twice cut to 14 in the fourth quarter as the Longhorns' offense began to heat up. But it proved to be too little, too late as both coaches emptied their benches in the game's final minute.
"I was proud of the way our kids battled back in the fourth quarter," Januzzi said. "We had a nice little run there and were getting after it.
"I think that's a good sign and a good thing to take out of tonight. For our guys, this was a good team to play heading into our tournament game next week against Independence," he said.
For the game, Voiers led the Longhorns with 15 points, including two treys, while Andrew O'Hara was held to eight points with 10 rebounds. Januzzi added eight points off the bench, including a pair of 3-pointers.
Bay was led by Sunahara, who had a game-high 19 points with 12 rebounds and a handful of blocked shots. Morriss had 14 points and six rebounds, while Koz added 10 points and five boards.
"It helped that they didn't make some of their shots at the beginning," Shetzer said. "If they make those, then obviously it's a different story.
"They had some open looks that we weren't really happy about. They missed those shots, and we were able to secure the rebound and get out in transition," Shetzer said. "They've got kids who can shoot it, and they showed that down the stretch when they made that little run.
"But overall, we did a nice job of getting out on them. We finally played about three and a half quarters of basketball defensively," he added.
Bay will host the winner of the Brookside-Rocky River game next Friday night in a Division II sectional final. Lutheran West will open Division III tournament play by hosting Independence on Tuesday night.
"It's been a great year," Januzzi said. "It's our first home loss in two years, and to win our conference back-to-back has been great.
"We've had some really emotional wins here. A week ago at Columbia was big, then we go to Brooklyn, they take us into overtime and we pull it out. Then you come into this game after going through all of that. It's tough to continue to get up for games, especially after going through all of that.
"Not that this wasn't an important game, but I think that affected us. That was part of the challenge. But this team has exceeded expectations. Hopefully we can bounce back and play well Tuesday night against Independence," he added.
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Click on the cameras below to view Larry's photos and video highlights from this game: