By Tom Nader
Publisher and Editor
The importance of defense has been magnified for the Streetsboro boys basketball team in 2023-24.
It has long been a staple of Nick Marcini’s coaching philosophy, but with this year’s Rockets still yet to eclipse 60 points scored in a single game, the emphasis to be a strong defensive team has become the team’s true identity.
On Friday, the Rockets proved it once again by holding Woodridge to only 39 points to secure a thrilling 42-39 Metro Athletic Conference victory on their home floor.
For the season, Streetsboro, which is now 9-8 overall and 7-4 in the MAC, is allowing its opponents to score only 48 points per game.
“We knew coming into this season that we were not going to have a ton of size, and we would be young,” Marcini said. “We knew we had players that had decent skill-sets, but we also knew that we were not going to be a team that would be able to light it up offensively, so we doubled down on the importance of guarding the basketball and defending the basket.”
It was fitting that Friday’s victory featured a relentless variety of that — all the way down to the final possession.
Trailing by 3 with 16.7 seconds remaining, Woodridge called timeout to set up a play for a 3-point attempt. When the Rockets defended the initial action well, the ball found itself deep in the left corner and Streetsboro’s Jack Batten disciplined defense — not biting on pump fakes or dekes to pull him into crowded space — forced a difficult attempt that fell short and led to a breakout layup for the Rockets on the other side for a 5-point lead with less than 10 seconds left.
Woodridge scored a layup just before time expired for the three-point margin of victory.
“I thought Jack showed a tremendous amount of discipline on that final stop,” Marcini said. “He did a great job of not leaving his feet and staying down. We had just talked in the huddle, during their timeout, to play smart because we did not want to foul a 3-point attempt. Talking about it and doing it can be two different things, but Jack did a great job.”
The sequence completed a flurried finish that was a race against the clock.
Streetsboro led 37-33 with 3:45 to play on a putback layup by Michael Berry, who then split a set of free throws moments later for a 38-33 lead before the Bulldogs’ Gavin Lynch made a driving layup on the left side to make it 38-35.
That score stuck until 33.3 seconds remained and Woodridge’s pressure allowed Cole Blower to poke free a steal that turned into an easy collect and layup to make it 38-37, triggering Bulldogs head coach Ric Blevins to immediately call timeout.
When play resumed, Streetsboro’s Jackson Gula was fouled as he attempted to corral the inbounds pass. With Woodridge over the foul limit, Gula was awarded two free throws and he sank both to make it 40-37 with 16.7 seconds, leading to Batten’s defensive stand.
Gula played the equivalent of what likely was about half the game because of foul trouble.
When Marcini chose to pull him in the early stages of the game after two quick fouls, the Rockets found offense on 3-pointers by Batten and Trevor Murray, as well as energy sparks by Preston Laryea and Ethan Laryea.
The duo scored four points each in the second quarter, leading the Rockets charge that turned a 10-5 deficit after the first quarter to a 21-14 advantage (16-4 run) just before halftime.
“I thought that both Preston and Ethan gave us great minutes off the bench. It was probably one of Ethan’s best games of the season,” Marcini said. “I thought our offense was a little stagnant in the first quarter, but they came in and got us some transition buckets that helped free the game up a little bit.”
The Rockets only had one other big offensive burst in the game and it came to start the third quarter. After it took them 16 first-half minutes to score 21 points, the group came out with a hot hand and scored eight points in the first 90 seconds to grow its 21-16 halftime lead to 29-16.
The rapid points came on back-to-back 3-pointers by Charles Ivory and Batten, which was then followed by a dribble-drive by Ivory that turned into a layup on the left block.
True to a rollercoaster-style offense, the Rockets then scored just one point the rest of the third quarter, while Woodridge battled back to trail only 30-26 going into the fourth quarter.
“That’s been about how our third quarters have gone this year,” Marcini said. “We find some easier looks and make shots, but then with it comes some defensive lapses and watching it tonight was like a feeling of, ‘Here we go again.’ But we settled down and got the stops when we needed them.”
Seven players scored for Streetsboro, but none of them reached double figures, Ivory and Batten both finished with nine points, while Gula had seven.
Berry pulled down a team-high seven rebounds, while Murray led the team in assists with three.
Woodridge’s offense was led by Evan Duve and Lynch, who both scored 11 points. Duve also pulled down a game-high 15 rebounds.