BOARDMAN -West Branch converted on 12-of-14 free throw attempts during the final two minutes and never gave the Struthers Wildcats an opportunity to claw back into the game during a 62-50 win in a Division II sectional opener on Monday at Boardman High School.
Little things can make a big difference, as the Warriors (7-16) never surrendered their double digit lead down the stretch.
"If we didn't make those free throws, it would have been a totally different game down the stretch," West Branch senior Beau Taylor said. "We were really able to put the game away with our free throw shooting."
Taylor paced the Warriors with 16 points. Sophomore Kip DeShields poured in 15 points and nabbed 11 rebounds while Jacob Griffith added 12 points and 10 rebounds.
The Warriors and Wildcats (8-15) fought tooth-and-nail for any type of breathing room through the game's first 17 minutes. Just before the half, Struthers' Dan Partika was whistled for a technical foul following a personal foul charged to him drawn by Taylor. Taylor calmly stepped to the line and sunk all four shots and as the Warriors entered the break with an eight-point lead.
"You hate to pin it on one thing, but maybe that is a situation where that kind of thing takes it out of them a little bit," West Branch coach Lou Sellaroli said. "But I think we got to the point where we were a little more patient and looking for our big guys a little more inside. I thought their guys had good jumping ability but our guys were stronger, and that was a difference."
W. BRANCH: 16-16-13-17 - 62
STRUTHERS: 13-11-9-17 - 50
W. BRANCH SCORING: Jerian Thomas 1-1-3, Beau Taylor 3-8-16, Drake Lohnes 3-0-6, Dustin Greenawalt 0-5-5, Kip DeShields 3-8-15, Zack Mucklo 1-0-2 Matt Meiter 1-0-3, Jacob Griffith 6-0-12. TOTALS: 18, 22-28: 62
STRUTHERS SCORING: Dave Stewart 10-0-21, Ray'Quan Phifer 4-5-14, Joe Wilas 2-0-5, Temero Holness 2-1-5, Dan Partika 2-0-5. TOALS: 20, 6-11: 50
Three-pointers: West Branch 4 (Taylor 2, DeShields, Meiter), Struthers 4 (Stewart, Phifer, Partika, Wilas)
Consecutive baskets from DeShields and Griffith gave West Branch their first double-digit lead of the night and Struthers coach Joe Savko quickly signaled for a timeout.
"I feel that they had control the whole game, we never got to a spot where we were in control or felt like it," Savko said. "We didn't play our basketball that we have been playing for the past eight games, and you have to give them credit because they had something to do with it."
Dave Stewart led Struthers with 21 points and Rayquan Phifer netted 15 points.
Eight points was the closest that the Wildcats came to ever taking that lead back from the Warriors as they continued to maximize each possession by churning up clock and getting points.
"You want to make sure that you have a good possession and I thought we did that and you want to try and control the clock a little bit," Sellaroli said. "Once we had a lead we controlled the clock the little bit, we get a good job of finding the right shots to score."
West Branch weathered the pressure that Struthers applied with their press for the duration of the night, and particularly down the stretch on the way to getting to the charity stripe - a sign for Sellaroli that his team has improved as the season has worn on.
"I thought our guards did a really nice job of handling the pressure and did a nice job of handling the basketball," Sellaroli said. "That is a situation where early to middle of the year, we weren't making this foul shots. Now we are and that is a tribute to those kids, they continue to work no matter what our situation and tonight it showed."
Defensively down the stretch the Warriors clamped down in order to minimize the chances given to Struthers. West Branch outrebounded Struthers 36-26.
"We didn't let them have very many second or third shots," DeShields said. "That's very important because it gives them more shots and they have a better chance of making them the more they get."
The Warriors will next take on Youngstown Cardinal Mooney in a sectional final at 6 p.m. on Wednesday at Boardman High School.
"I don't know much about them, but I know they have a big guy they like to get the ball inside to so boxing out and rebounding will be key," Sellaroli said. "It sounds simple, but that's always something you need to do well."