Story by Jim Horvath
Photos and video by Larry Bennet
Down by 10 midway through the second quarter, the young Independence Blue Devils made their run.
They scored the next eight points and blanked host Lutheran West for over four minutes to trail by only two at the half. But once the third quarter got underway, the tide quickly turned in the Longhorns' favor.
Lutheran West changed the tone of the game, doubling up the intensity on its full-court pressure. As a result, the Longhorns held the Blue Devils to 14 points in the second half and rolled to a 50-34 win Tuesday night in its Division III tournament opener at Wittrock Gymansium.
The win advanced Lutheran West, now 18-5, to Friday night's sectional championship game against third-seeded Beachwood.
"All year, our defensive intensity has driven what we've done and how we've played," said Lutheran West head coach Alan Januzzi, whose team outscored Independence 19-6 in the third quarter after holding a slim 22-20 halftime advantage.
"It's almost like our guys have a switch, and they can turn it on and off. When they decide to turn it on, we can have success," he said.
The Longhorns definitely turned it on to begin the second half. They paid special attention to Blue Devil freshman Kyle Stefanski, who drained four 3-pointers in the first half. He hit two of those in the closing minutes of the second quarter to help his team slice into a 22-12 deficit.
But the 5-11 guard did not score in the second half. Lutheran West also made it tough on the Blue Devils' leading scorer Dan Mathews, who was held to just four points in the game.
"They definitely stepped up their defense," said Blue Devils head coach Hugh McMahon, whose team closed out its season at 7-15.
"They're a well-coached team, and they were very aggressive in the second half," MacMahon continued. "You have to match and respond to that, but we struggled on the offensive end. That led to some breakouts that allowed them to pull away from us.
"We've had bad quarters in the past, and you can't do that against a good team and expect to be in the game," he said.
But up to that point, Independence had more than held its own against the fifth-seeded Longhorns. The Blue Devil defense held the home team scoreless for the final 4:12 of the half, while Stefanski's long range shots and an offensive rebound from 6-3 junior Ryan Dworznik pulled the visitors to within a bucket.
"We were really happy with our position at halftime," McMahon said.
"We were hoping that we could ramp up our intensity for the second half. We just couldn't get a couple of things to fall for us to finish some plays off. I thought we did some decent things.
"But you've got to put the ball in the basket or they get fast break opportunities," he added.
Putting the ball in the basket proved easier said than done. Independence, which had already turned the ball over 12 times in the first half, committed four more miscues in the third quarter against the Longhorn press. The Blue Devils made three of just nine shots taken in the frame.
That proved more than enough to help spark the Lutheran West offense.
Up 26-22, the Longhorns went to work. Sean Voiers scored on a back door cut, thanks to the assist from Andrew O'Hara. Clay Carper then took advantage of a Blue Devil turnover, scoring on a fast break to make it 30-22 with 2:55 left in the quarter.
After an Independence timeout, Dominic Januzzi scored on a fast break to bump the lead back up to 10 at 32-24. Mathews scored on a drive for the Blue Devils, but the ensuing 8-0 run by the Longhorns seemed to all but put the game away.
Carper scored a bucket, then drained a 3-pointer to make it 37-24. A driving bank shot by Josh Ranc and a free throw from O'Hara made it 40-24 Longhorns with 1:05 left in the third.
It was all about answering the Blue Devils' first-half challenge, according to Januzzi.
"Independence is very scrappy, and they've hung in there against a lot of good teams this year," Januzzi said.
"In the first half, it was a very physical game and we weren't dealing with that very well. We needed to get the ball inside more and be stronger on our finishes. We didn't do that, so we struggled a little bit.
"But to our guys' credit, we came out in the third quarter and did what we needed to do defensively. We got stops. We wanted to pressure them, get them in some traps and make them turn the ball over," he added.
In the fourth quarter, Lutheran West led by as many as 18 points, 48-30, on a Carper fast break hoop. And the Longhorn defense continued to make life difficult on the Blue Devil offense, holding the visitors to just two buckets in 10 attempts.
Stefanski led Independence with 12 points, while junior Mario Figliola chipped in with 10. Mathews, who averaged 17 points per game this season, got all four of his points in the second half as he closed out his high school basketball career.
"When they shut down Kyle, that should have opened up Dan more," McMahon said.
"He's our only senior, and we've got all these young guys with not much experience playing this year. Dan's been our leader and our only captain. He's done a phenomenal job for us.
"We hoped that would free him up a little bit, but they did a good job shading him and not letting him get the ball," he said.
For Lutheran West, Voiers led a balanced attack with 13 points. O'Hara and Januzzi each scored 12 points, while Carper finished with 11.
"We've had different guys step up all year. I think that's one of our pluses," Januzzi said. "Our kids play very unselfish basketball, and because of that we typically get three or four guys in double figures.
"That's a nice team effort," he added.
Lutheran West also won the rebounding battle, 25-17. O'Hara had nine rebounds, while Januzzi added six off the bench. Dworznik had five rebounds for the Blue Devils.
For Lutheran West, it's on to the next challenge at Beachwood Friday night.
"This district is loaded," Januzzi said. "We'll have to really play well, control the ball, defend and rebound to have a shot at Beachwood.
"When you play a team like that, they're going to score a lot of their points off of offensive rebounds, turnovers and your quick misses. They're going to run the floor the other way. You've got to control that. You've got to keep them off the boards and be very efficient on offense.
"It'll be one of those games where you have to take a 32-minute game and try to shrink it down to a 24-minute game. If you can stay close, you've got a shot. That's what we're looking to do," he added.
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Click on the cameras below to view Larry's photos and video highlights from this game: