St. John's Jesuit and City League rival St. Francis de Sales had their third clash of the season in last night's Division I boys district basketball semifinals.
Thanks to better interior defense in this rubber match, the Titans were able to bounce St. Francis out of the tournament with a 45-37 victory at Savage Arena.
"Every day we practiced we had the score of the last game up - 72-63 - so they knew," Titans coach Ed Heintschel said of his team's motivation. "We just had to step it up. The guys did a great job on defense. They worked really hard.
"We tried to contest Storm [Stanley] a little bit more and not be so passive with him. And last time we really opened up the floodgates for Greg Fockler. I thought we did better on them."
The win set up a rematch between St. John's (17-4), the CL's regular-season winner, and Central Catholic (20-2), the league's playoff champion. The Irish lost at St. John's 65-61 in overtime on Jan. 15.
If there was a difference maker between this win and the 72-63 loss to the Knights in the CL semifinals here on Feb. 23, it was the two-way play of burly 6-4 junior forward Zach Steinmetz, who supplied team highs of 11 points and 13 rebounds, plus enough defensive effort to slow Stanley, St. Francis' 6-11 center.
"Steinmetz was terrific," Heintschel said. "He played huge. He attacked it. He was giving away height to Storm, but he's a big strong guy and he bulled his way in there."
St. John's, which started fast and then progressively lost steam in the Feb. 23 loss, was able to sustain its play at both ends this time, and managed to hold on down the stretch.
"The difference this time was they got some big baskets from what you'd call role players, and at key times," Knights coach Nick Lowe said of St. John's. "We held Jay Springs in check for what he's capable of doing. But they had some big plays at big times from their role players."
The Titans grabbed a 13-9 lead after one quarter, and took a 23-21 edge to halftime.
They built momentum after the break when senior guard T.J. Gillespie (10 points) opened the third-quarter scoring with a 3-pointer, and Steinmetz followed with an inside bucket for a 28-21 lead.
"We went into with the mind-set that we had to play our butts offs, basically," Steinmetz said, "and we had to put it all on the floor. We didn't want to go out like that, losing to St. Francis two out of three times."
After Knights forward Greg Fockler answered with basket from the low post, Jay Springs (seven points) and Gillespie responded with short jumpers to cap St. John's 9-2 run for a 32-23 lead with 3:49 left in the third.
St. Francis would fight back, however, beginning an 8-0 run late in the third quarter and completing it on an eight-footer from Stanley (17 points, nine rebounds) to cut St. John's lead to 34-33 with 5:50 left in the game.
But that was as close as the Knights would get, as field goals from Steinmetz and Springs took the lead back out to five points, and the Titans were able to ice things by hitting seven of 10 free throws in the final 1:48.
"We got it to one in the fourth quarter and never could get over the hump," Lowe said. "You can't guess what would happen, but a lot of times that [taking a lead] does a lot for your confidence."
The win put St. John's into a district final for the 11th straight season, a run that has included five district titles and four trips to the state final four.
St. John's was 17-of-44 (39 percent) from the field, 8-of-12 from the line, and edged St. Francis 25-24 in rebounding. The Knights were 13-of-33 (39 percent) from the field, 9-of-13 from the line, and committed 17 turnovers while forcing just nine.
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