ROCKY RIVER, Ohio (March 2, 2023) -- Rocky River closed out its winter campaign in a hard-fought Buckeye State tournament loss to Villa Angela-St. Joseph Thursday. A strong third quarter by the Vikings, though one followed by a gutsy Pirate comeback, paced VASJ to a 69-58 victory in what was a semifinal game in Northeast 3 District play in the DII Region 5 Tournament.
In a tense seesaw tussle loaded with impressive plays at both ends of the floor, the Vikings (11-14) -- seeded 18th in the region -- opened a 22-16 lead by the latter half of the second period. No. 10 Rocky River (14-10) then went on a 7-0 run, which included a 3-point play by guard Julian Patti, to edge in front. When guard Michael Swallow knocked down a runner at the two-minute mark of the second, River led 23-22.
After 14 minutes of a high-pressure defensive engagement, both fives cranked up their offenses in the final two minutes of the half. Sophomore guard Sean Shenker sank a trey -- his fourth of the night -- late in the second, and that bucket sent the Vikings into halftime leading 29-28.
The Vikings wrested control of the evening in the third. Holding the Pirates without a field goal until the 1:10-mark of the third, Villa Angela-St. Joseph opened the period with a 15-1 run.
River battled back a bit by the end of the third -- when it trailed 45-34 -- and then by a bunch over the first couple minutes of the fourth. Heady play up and down the lineup got the Sons of Blackbeard within five (47-42) by the 5:30-mark.
The tourney battle existed in that two-possession state for a a couple minutes, but then junior guard Quandell Wright helped the Vikings get back in control. Wright would bang home five baskets in the fourth en route to scoring a game-high 16 points. His Vikings upped their lead to a more comfortable eight, even after a big Gavin O'Brien triple at 2:03.
In a whistle-fest that included 50 fouls in all, the final minutes were played out 15 feet at a time and slightly to VASJ's benefit.
"The guys really fought hard and played for each other," said coach Mike Murray, whose Pirates had a five-game win streak snapped in the bracket defeat. "I have so much appreciation for this group and the way it battled."
The battle for the 2022-23 season opened with six straight wins, from Dec. 2-27. It continued with ground lost in a cold January. The Pirates went just 3-9 over their next 12 games. That span included three straight losses from Jan. 31-Feb. 7 that saw the team shoot just 32.4% from the floor.
The rest of the way for the Double-R was a Resolute Rally. Five straight wins after a disappointing first-round exit in the Great Lakes Conference Tournament. And then showing more of that swashbuckling moxie in the final stanza of the season, Thursday's fourth quarter.
It was one last chapter in a well-written book. Plenty of character came across on every page. In a story was perhaps best summed up by a team photo taken during a highlight-of-the-winter afternoon in Cleveland: at midcourt in an NBA building, standing astride the logo for a franchise associated with the phrase, "All for one and one for all."
CANNON FIRE ...
BALANCED BUCS: Gavin O'Brien (12 points) and Will DeClerck (11) were River's leading scorers Thursday. Michael Swallow added nine points. Julian Patti had eight. Jaden Charney and Censier Williams chipped in with seven points each. DeClerck and Jamaal Mansour gave the Pirates strong efforts on the boards. [Full game stats unavailable at time of publication.]
DISTRICT FINALE: Villa Angela-St. Joseph will play No. 3 Akron Buchtel in Saturday's 7 p.m. Northeast 3 District Tournament title game.
by Skip Snow
# # # River # # #