The Mentor Cardinals were smothered Wednesday by The Smothers Brothers, also known as the Warren Harding Raiders. The result was an 88-61 defeat in a Division I regional semifinal at Cleveland State University.
That sets up a title-game showdown against rugged Lakewood St. Edward, which required a fourth-quarter comeback to beat Elyria, 70-65, in the opener.
Mentor lives and dies by the bomb. But the tenacious, superquick Raiders refused to allow open looks from the perimeter, particularly in the first half, when the Cardinals hit just 2 of 17 from 3-point range.
Game, set, match. Harding held Mentor to just three points in the second quarter in forging a 34-14 halftime lead.
“We hammered it into their heads at practice and in pre-game warm-ups that we wanted to suffocate their guys defensively,” explained Raiders coach Steve Arnold. “And in the first half, we definitely did it. We didn’t want to give them wide-open looks because we felt that was the only way they were going to hurt us.”
The Cardinals were held without a basket in the second quarter until less than a minute before halftime. The Raiders owned a distinct height advantage not only up front with 6-foot-8 Chris Henderson and 6-7 Damian Eargle, but in the backcourt as well. They used their length and ability to get a hand in the faces of the Mentor shooters to stifle the champions of the Euclid district.
And when the Cardinals aren’t hitting from the perimeter, they struggle to win, especially against the team coach Bob Krizancic claims is the most talented in the state. Mentor starts four underclassmen, which he felt played a role in the team’s inability to make adjustments to Harding’s swarming defense.
“I think we played a little bit scared early on,” Krizancic said. “They’re so big and strong. We had to knock down shots to keep it close. They’re one team that’s hard to get the ball inside against. Athletically, they’re one of the best in Ohio, if not the best.”
The Cardinals did indeed attack the basket with greater frequency in the second half, which allowed them to kick the ball out for more open perimeter shots. They managed to hit 8 of 14 from beyond the arc in the second half, led by Krizancic’s freshman son Cole, who nailed four in the fourth quarter alone.
By then, however, it was a classic case of too little too late. Among the defensive heroes for Harding was guard Fred Williams, who stymied Joe Meyer, Mentor’s leading scorer at 20 points a game.
“(Arnold) told us to keep our hands up and distract them,” Williams said. “That’s what we did. We played really good team defense.”
That was an understatement, particularly considering his team’s first-half performance.
“The second quarter was probably (the best defense) we’ve played all year,” Arnold said. “It was pretty impressive. Our length causes problems – even our guards. They had to try to shoot over the top of us and that affected their vision.”
If the Smothers Brothers strike again in the regional final Saturday night against St. Edward, they could very well be making plans for a trip to Columbus.
The Eagles, however, have other ideas after outscoring the Pioneers, 30-12, in the fourth quarter to survive. Elyria guard Demetrius Dalton nearly carried the team that was playing in its first regional in 31 years on his back. He scored 38 points on 16-of-29 shooting overall and 6 of 11 from 3-point range.
“This was a good experience,” Dalton said. “We played as hard as we could, but we just lost the momentum and couldn’t get it back. But there was a sense of pride for us getting this far. We did something this school hadn’t done in 31 years, so we’re happy either way.”
St. Edward, which qualified for the state tournament in 2007, might not have felt the same way in defeat. But 6-foot-9 center Tom Pritchard, who is headed for the University of Indiana on a basketball scholarship, made certain that the Eagles didn’t have an early exit. He finished with a team-high 24 points and game-high 14 rebounds.
His teammates had problems getting him the ball underneath much of the game against the quick Pioneers, but Pritchard began cleaning up on put-backs. It was the only way St. Edward could offset Dalton, who scored on layups, short jumpers and bombs
“We’re not the quickest team in the world,” admitted St. Edward coach Eric Flannery. “We knew speed would be an issue. We have a pretty good halfcourt defense, but we couldn’t get back on defense to stop them. And Pritchard wasn’t getting the ball pounded into him like we would have liked. Elyria definitely did a great job putting us back on our heels.”
In the end, the Eagles simply proved too strong. But Flannery was taken aback by their reaction to the victory.
“They’re sitting in (the locker room) like it’s no big deal,” he said. “I told them I wished they show some emotion. I said you just came back from 13 points down. But their goal is to get back to state and win it. And I think they’re more disappointed in themselves tonight than they were excited about the win.”
They’ll have a chance to make up for it on Saturday night – and then some.