Defense in basketball can be like a wise investment strategy. Do it well over a long period of time and chances are you'll like the results.
Such was the case last night at Savage Hall in St. John's Jesuit's 58-48 victory over Lakewood St. Edward in the Division I regional semifinals.
The City League-champion Titans pinned their noses to the defensive grindstone for the game's first 29 minutes and, by then, had enough solid basketball stockpiled to overcome an unstable market down the stretch.
“I have whined and complained and was on them from Day 1 about defense,” Titan coach Ed Heintschel said, “because defense wins championships. If you don't win big, you've got to be willing to play good half-court man-to-man defense.
“That's the cornerstone. That's what you have to start with. I don't know if these guys believed me at the start of the year. I hope they believe me now.”
St. John's (20-4) will face Ashland (19-5) here at 7:30 tomorrow night for the championship. The Arrows, who edged Cleveland St. Ignatius 55-51 in last night's second semifinal, lost at St. John's 55-35 back on Dec. 28.
By halftime, the Titans had banged out a hard-fought 19-10 lead against the team which had ended their 25-1 season in last year's regional final here. That one ended in a heartbreaking 64-61 loss to St. Edward on a 3-pointer at the final buzzer.
Earlier this season, the Titans let a 13-point third-quarter lead dissolve into a 61-59 loss at Lakewood, also on a last-second shot.
“Defensively they got after us right from the beginning,” St. Edward coach Eric Flannery said. “Their intensity was awesome. The way they kept momentum the entire first half and into the third quarter was a big difference in the game.
“We had great intensity last year [in regional final] from the get-go and they did the [same] to us tonight.”
The Eagles did trim a 47-30 St. John's lead at the 2:52 mark of the fourth quarter down to 53-48 with 53 seconds to play on a 3-pointer from Ryan Marando. But there would be no such happy ending for St. Ed this time.
Ultimately, St. John's won by taking care of business from the outset. St. Edward (18-6) shot just 30 percent (16 of 53) from the field, committed 22 turnovers, had six shots blocked and most others heavily contested.
The individual contributors for St. John's were many.
Sophomore forwards B.J. Raymond (17 points, 9 rebounds) and Zach Hillesland (6 points, 12 boards) were the most noticeable. And, despite being held to 10 points, junior point guard Brian Roberts was the glue offensively.
But work of seniors Brandon Barabino (14 points) and Thomas Carr (7 rebounds, 4 steals) - the former steady and constistent, the latter just plain ratty in the trenches - was equally as valuable. The Titans also got key minutes from 6-3 senior backup forward Ryan Pierson, who added six points.
St. Edward saw its top scorer, senior Samario Clancy, held to 2 points and 8 rebounds, and had scored just 21 points as a team heading to the fourth quarter trailing by 11. In last year's final Clancy had 20 points and 16 rebounds against the Titans.
“I think Hillesland's job on Clancy was remarkable,” Heintschel said. “We have the utmost respect for Clancy. He's a big-game player and a big-time shooter when they need it the most. And he had two points tonight. To get that kind of an effort from a sophomore is awesome.”
Only the 3-point shooting of Shaun Carney (4 treys, 16 points) kept the Eagles from fading. When they finally came alive and outscored St. John's 27-26 in the fourth quarter, including 18 points in a two-minute span, it was too late.
“They just wouldn't go away,” Heintschel said. “I kind of expected that. We missed some free throws and gave them some opportunities. All the stuff you could do bad, we did. But we survived and that's the main thing.”