By Dan Gilles
Earlier this season, Avon Lake came into Westlake High School and caught the Demons by surprise with its speed and athleticism.
The Shoremen won, 49-40, back on Dec. 14.
On Friday night, the Demons turned the tables on the Shoremen on their home floor, coming away with a 54-47 Southwestern Conference victory.
Westlake coach Shawn Hood admitted that he and his team were unprepared for Avon Lake’s speed and athleticism when the two teams first met earlier this season. This time, Hood and his staff were ready.
“Their athleticism and their quickness caught us off guard the first time,” said Hood, a former Cleveland State standout and Admiral King assistant coach. “I hadn’t had the opportunity to see them. This time, it didn’t. We were prepared for their great speed and quickness.
“We knew they would press us the whole game because they’re more athletic than we are. But we were ready.”
The two teams battled through a deadlocked first and second quarter to go into halftime tied at 22. Neither team was able to sustain any type of serious run until the third quarter.
After a fast-break layup by Brad Hamilton tied the score at 31 for Avon Lake (10-6, 6-4 SWC) with 2:31 left in the third quarter, the Demons (12-4, 7-3) started to put something together.
From that point until there was 4:32 remaining in the game, Westlake went on an 11-0 run to put some separation between it and the host Shoremen. A buzzer-beating layup by Shawn Turk, who led all scorers with 13 points, made it a 35-31 lead after three quarters, and Danny Strodtbeck’s 3-pointer started the big fourth.
“Our half-court defense was outstanding,” said Strodtbeck, who scored eight of his 10 points during the fourth quarter. “Our rules are to play the best half-court defense and best half-court offense. That’s how we try to run things, and I think we accomplished both of those tonight, especially during that run.”
The Shoremen got no closer than nine points the rest of the way.
The Demons were highly efficient from the floor, shooting 56 percent (21-for-38), and outrebounded Avon Lake, 31-17.
“I was happy with our patience on offense,” Hood said. “They are so quick and aggressive, we just had to throw it around a little bit and survive in the half-court offensively. That’s really what we were doing – surviving. We did have some bad spots, where we turned it over a bunch. But, for the most part, we handled their pressure and their speed and quickness in the half-court.
“I thought we were able to get some decent shots because of it. (Rebounds) were an emphasis because they dominated us on the glass in that first game. We had talked about it all week, and the kids responded.”
Hood also commended his defense for thwarting Avon Lake’s offense and shutting down its top players.
“We got back and kept them in front of us, doing a better job of guarding their scorers (Seth) Muck and (Christian) Jones,” Hood said. “Their big guy (Mitch Gabanic) got into foul trouble in the first half and really didn’t get going until the second half. Those are their top three scorers, so we did a great job defending those players.”
Muck and Jones, which had 24 and 22 points, respectively, last Tuesday against Berea, were both held to 10 points apiece by the Demon defense. Gabanic was held to just six points and only grabbed one rebound.
Avon Lake coach Eric Smith said Westlake’s ability to take away their fast-paced style had a huge effect on the outcome.
“(Westlake) won every effort play,” Smith said. “That was the difference in the game tonight. Every loose ball, they got and they turned into points, and they got a ton of offensive rebounds and putbacks for points. Those are the things we normally do to other people.
“We usually can turn them over with our press or get up and frustrate them in the half-court, and if we come up with a loose ball, we can get a little run going. They took our transition game away from us, and that’s the first time I can say we weren’t able to get out and go on somebody. That hurt us. We’re not a grind-it-out team. We need to create some offense, and we didn’t do that.”
Hood likes what he’s seeing out of his team with the regular season down to its final two weeks.
“They’re all big, but we feel like we’re playing a little better,” Hood said. “This was a good barometer because they’re a terrific team. They’re one of the top teams in the conference and one of the top teams in the area. If you can go on the road at this point in the season and get a win like this, than you can feel like you can compete with virtually everyone else.”
Junior Gavin Skelly battled foul trouble, but finished with 10 points on a 4-of-5 shooting performance and led the team with eight rebounds. Jamie Lackner, who sank a huge 3-pointer at the first-quarter buzzer to the score at 15, added nine points on a perfect night from the floor (4-of-4).
“Gavin makes big plays for us, but if he gets into foul trouble, us as a group have to pick it up more,” Strodtbeck said. “(Friday night), we were able to do that.”