If VASJ and Lake Catholic meet in the Division II Lakeside District, it should be a heck of a battle.
The preview was Feb. 10 at Lake Catholic, and the Vikings prevailed, 66-61, led by All-Ohio point guard Jerry Higgins.
A second matchup – if it happens – would certainly be worth the price of admission.
The Vikings, behind another great night by Higgins and stout defense, won a thriller in front of a capacity crowd in what could be the first round between the teams. The two teams are expected to be seeded No. 1 and No. 2 at the Division II Lakeside District when seeds are released on Feb. 11. If both hold serve and advance through the tournament, their next meeting will be in exactly one month – the district final at Lakeside High School.
After Higgins (29 points) dominated the second quarter with three steals and 13 points to break open a first-quarter tie and give VASJ (11-7) a 34-28 halftime lead, the Vikings built leads as high as 13 points in the third quarter and 11 in the fourth.
Lake sliced the deficit to 60-57 with 1:52 left in the game. Higgins and Jaden Hameed (11 points) each made two free throws around an inside bucket by the Cougars’ Luka Eller to make it 64-59 with 48 seconds remaining. Eller then found Sean Fitzgerald cutting to the basket, and the junior laid it in and drew a foul. Fitzgerald missed the and-one attempt, but the 6-foot-7 Eller grabbed the rebound with 13 seconds left and the Cougars down by three.
Coming out of a time out, Eller tried a 3 from the corner, but missed, and the Vikings’ Khalil Mitcham grabbed the rebound and passed to Higgins, who was fouled with 3 seconds to play and sank two from the line for the final margin.
“I think the key was our defense,” Higgins said. “We really got after them and pressured them. Some of the shots we usually hit, we didn’t tonight, but we really locked in on defense and tried to get stops, especially in the first half.”
Higgins led all scorers with 29 points. He converted 9 of 12 foul shots.
“The first thing to say is that without Mike Moran, there is no St. Joe’s basketball,” VASJ coach Babe Kwasniak said in reference to Lake Catholic coach Matt Moran’s father, the legendary St. Joseph and John Carroll coach that was standing nearby, underscoring the deep connections that run between the schools. “I grew up with Matt and love him like a brother. I’d rather win in a month than today. We haven’t really had a win to hang our hat on, and I think that was it.”
The VASJ interior defense, led by 6-foot-8 junior Latrace Jackson and 6-foot-6 junior Mitcham, was key to victory.
“I though Khalil and Latrace did a great job, and Jay (junior Jason Priah) I thought. especially on the last play, did a great job,” Kwasniak said regarding his team’s strong defensive effort. “That was a great call by (Moran), he set a screen for the big guy (Eller), and Jason altered the shot enough to make him miss. We’re still so inexperienced so (tonight) was exactly what we need. This was better for us than a 10- or 15-point win or a 10- or 15-point loss.
“We used to save Gene (Higgins) for offense and put someone else on the best player, but he’s as good a defender as there is in the state. He doesn’t get tired, he’s not allowed to get tired. He got a couple steals early on against Luke Frazier, and he probably doesn’t have the ball taken away from him a lot. …. I’m not sure I have a done enough to explain how good Higgins has been for us. He’s really special. Maybe one of the best players I’ve ever coached.”
Brandon Horton finished with 12 points for Lake Catholic, all on 3s, three of which came during the fourth-quarter rally. Fitzgerald added 10 for the Cougars.
“We learned that we’re going to have to do a better job stopping Gene Higgins,” Moran said. “What a tremendous player he is. He’s a leader, he’s unselfish, he does it on both ends of the floor. He made some great plays, and hopefully we can learn from that. They did a tremendous job defensively, they pressured our wings, we had trouble getting our offense going.”
Higgins as always was humble and turned the attention on his teammates.
“I thought tonight was the win we needed to get us rolling,” Higgins said. ”
“We locked in on defense and that was a major key to winning. We knew that they were very good on offense and have some great talent. Jason Priah and Khalil Mitchum played phenomenal and extremely hard on the boards and Graham Koppelmen spaced out the floor with 3-point shooting tonight. It’s great we beat them now, but hopefully we can see them again in March.”