By Dan Gilles
In a big Patriot Athletic Conference Stripes Division clash at Clearview High School last Friday night, Lutheran West came out very strong – scoring the first nine points of the game, to be exact.
After Clearview answered back with a huge second quarter of its own to take a 3-point halftime lead, it was a pair of senior Longhorns who picked up the slack in the second half.
Senior Dan Hillenbrand scored 19 of his 25 points in the second half, while fellow senior Chris Ranc erupted for seven of his 14 points and seven of his nine rebounds in the fourth quarter, propelling the visiting Longhorns to a very competitive 68-60 victory at the Frank & Ann Szalay Memorial Gymnasium.
The win improved Lutheran West to 4-4 overall, 3-2 in the PAC. The Longhorns head into this week’s play on a bit of a hot streak, winning three out of their last four games.
“Our kids have played well,” Lutheran West head coach Alan Januzzi said. “We’ve won three out of our last four, and one loss came at Orange, who is a very good team. We were up by three and wound up losing by four. Our last four games, our kids have really played well.
“We have different guys on different nights stepping up and playing well. I think we have enough depth that we can rotate different guys in and see who’s playing well and go with those guys in the fourth quarter. Hopefully, that continues, and we get better and build momentum as we move our way through conference play in January.”
But the key was beating a historically tough Clearview (4-4, 2-3) team with a classy veteran coach like John Szalay on its home floor.
“That was a good win for our kids and a good win for our program,” Januzzi said. “Anytime you can beat Clearview on their floor is huge. Clearview is obviously a very athletic basketball team, and they’ve been historically very tough on their home floor, especially this year.
“For our kids to come out and come back from a halftime deficit and play a positive second half like that is a good positive step in the right direction for our kids.”
Hillenbrand, a 6-foot-6-inch senior, shot 8-of-9 in the second half, including 5-of-6 in a third quarter that saw Lutheran West turn that 33-30 halftime deficit into a 47-45 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
Ranc, who had a quiet seven points and two rebounds during the first three quarters, erupted to make all three of his fourth quarter shots and split a pair of free throws, helping propel the Longhorns (4-4, 3-2) to a 21-point quarter.
“Dan stepped up in the second half,” Januzzi said. “He stayed patient throughout the game. He struggled a little bit early on and he just stuck with it and persevered through it.
“I thought Chris Ranc was the guy, I really do. He did a lot of little things for us down the stretch, grabbing a couple huge offensive rebounds that he converted, and made some great decisions. He brought us energy and led us on the floor tonight. That’s what you expect from your seniors, and both of those guys really stepped up for us tonight.”
The Longhorns opened up the game on a 9-0 run and took a 15-7 first-quarter lead. But the Clippers found their rhythm in the second quarter.
Led by Clifton Brown’s eight points – he wound up with 16 – Clearview began chipping away at the Longhorn lead.
A rare 5-point play – a 3-pointer by Bryan Walker, with Daimon Knowles sinking both ends of a 1-and-1 following an off-the-ball foul – with 3:01 left cut the Longhorn lead to 27-25. Brown followed with a fast-break layup, and then found Gerrell Williams on an alley-oop dunk on Clearview’s next possession to grab a 29-27 lead with 2:18 remaining.
That 9-0 spurt propelled the Clippers to a 13-3 run to end the first half, putting the final touches on a 26-point second quarter.
“We didn’t start at the same time Lutheran West started tonight,” Szalay said. “It looks like we waited a little bit. We were down 9-0. But the kids did a great job fighting back to go up 3 at halftime.
“I have so much respect for Alan. I have for years. He’s a great coach and his kids play hard. It’s a fun competition like that. There’s a good camaraderie there, and his kids definitely executed when it mattered.”
Hillenbrand almost single-handedly helped Lutheran West erase that halftime deficit. At one point, he scored six unanswered points to help the Longhorns take a 41-39 lead, and that turned into an 11-2 run – all points by Hillenbrand – to increase their lead to 46-39.
“Coming off the break, we knew we had to win this game,” Hillenbrand said. “We’ve won three out of our last four, and we knew we had to keep that momentum going. We knew it was going to be an offensive game, and we knew that we just had to start scoring. I just was working harder for the ball and hustling more, mostly. I was kind of slow in the first half and I just needed to pick it up.
“This was a good team effort. A lot of people stepped up that needed to, and we were able to finish it off.”
Clearview trailed, 57-49, in the fourth quarter before mounting one last charge. The Clippers went on a 7-2 mini-run, capped by a 3-pointer by Knowles, to cut the lead to 59-56 with 2:23 remaining.
However, that’s as close as the Clippers could get. Back-to-back layups by Hillenbrand and Ranc bumped that lead out to seven, and started a game-ending 9-4 run to erase any thoughts of a comeback win.
“We talked about it before – that even if it’s close, we have to own the fourth quarter,” Ranc said. “We have to be able to pull away from teams and to finish teams, and it was nice to see that collective team effort tonight. Everybody made sure everybody took care of the ball, and a lot of people contributed to us pulling away.
“The coaches made our preseason very hard. We played Massillon Perry and we played Orange right before the break. I think playing that tough preseason and being able to hang with those guys will really make a difference for us in the long run, especially once we get into the conference and get into the grind of playing twice a week.”
Kyle Masek added nine points, while Greg Kunze added six points – all in the fourth quarter – for the Longhorns.
Williams led the Clippers with 17 points and 10 rebounds, while Knowles added 12.
“I thought it was a hard-fought game,” Szalay said. “I thought our kids played with energy and with intensity. But their size was hard for us to defend. They got a lot of second-shots, and we didn’t get very many second-shots. And they executed at the end.
“We were right there, but we allowed too many second-chance baskets and they finished the game well and we didn’t. That was basically the ballgame for us.”