Smith leads Blazers with 26 in new coach's first win
DEC. 8, NELSON H. KORBEN MEMORIAL GYM-
Up eleven points with five minutes remaining in the third quarter, the Blair boys' varsity basketball team appeared to be cruising to their first win of the season against a lackluster Einstein opponent. It was a blowout in the making: the double-digit lead, a cohesive offense and a stingy defense that was forcing turnovers and timeouts. Blair's initial dominance made it all the more shocking when the Blazers found themselves down 73-70 in the first overtime period after an improbable second-half Einstein run.
However, clutch free-throws and a spectacular three-point shooting display by senior guard Darius Smith enabled the Blazers to battle back and defeat the Titans 86-81 in a double overtime thriller.
"It feels great," said Blair head coach Mark DeStefano of the Blazers' victory. "It's nice to have the first [win] at home with a great crowd in this type of game."
And what a game it was. Blair held a shaky lead through the first quarter, but limited Einstein's shots while forcing turnovers with a trap defense that was visibly frustrating the Einstein guards. A 6-0 run sparked by junior guard Milton Colqueheun's layup forced the Titans to burn a timeout with a little under 2:00 remaining in the first. The Titans came out of the timeout looking slightly more focused and, after forcing two Blair turnovers, cut the lead to 15-13 by the end of the quarter.
The Blazers heated up in the second quarter thanks to senior swingman Ross Williams, who connected on an early three and then couldn't miss. Williams, a high energy player who also captained Blair's football team, dazzled the Einstein defense with an array of threes, mid-range jumpers and slashing cuts to the baskets, which almost always ended with a layup, free throws or both. A shadow of himself in Blair's season opener, Williams finished with 24 points including three three-pointers and several clutch free throws, one of which forced the first overtime period.
Smith, often the smallest player on the court, also came up big against the Titans Friday night. His long three, the first of 5, with 4:52 remaining in the second extended the Blair lead to 25-15. After trading baskets for several minutes, Williams buried a jumper from downtown, putting Blair up 34-21 for their largest lead of the night. However, back to back threes on the following Einstein possession cut the lead to 34-27, and the Blazers ended the half up 5.
The third quarter saw more pretty basketball by the Blazers, but the Einstein offense, absent in the first half, began to heat up as well. After senior center Rich Chavez converted a three-point play to put the Blazers up 45-34 with a little more than 5:00 remaining in the quarter, Einstein began to gather momentum. A three by Einstein guard Dennis Bassich sparked a 10-3 run by the Titans, who chiseled away at the Blair lead with a combination of free throws and easy layups. Bassich's 35 points were a game high, and the inconspicuous guard bothered the Blazers all night long with sharp shooting and a knack for getting to the basket. Williams countered Bassich's bucket with his second three pointer of the night, ending the quarter on a high note and giving Blair some breathing room as they entered the fourth.
The Titans continued their surge in the fourth, outscoring Blair 16-5 during one run, and took the lead early in the quarter on another Bassich three-pointer. When the dust settled, and the Blazers realized that they had squandered a 13 point-lead and were now down a basket with only minutes remaining, determination stepped in.
Smith hit one of the biggest threes of the night to draw the Blazers within one with 1:34 left in the game. On the following Blair possession, Williams drove to the basket and powered his way to the hoop, drawing a foul as he made the layup. Williams converted the three-point play to tie the game at 65 with seconds remaining. The Blazers forced a tough shot from Einstein, but Williams' short runner was blocked on the other side of the court. Bassich grabbed the loose ball and, with seconds left, drove at Smith, the only defender between him and the basket. Smith played Bassich perfectly, and bothered the Einstein star just enough to force a missed layup as time expired.
The two teams traded baskets in the first four-minute overtime period, but again, Blair found itself down when it mattered. Smith connected on another three to draw the Blazers within one, but Einstein's dribble penetration on the other end of the floor led to a couple of easy layups. Senior guard Tori Patton, who had been fairly quiet in the first half, drained two free throws with just seconds left to bring Blair within one. An errant pass by the Titans gave Blair the chance to finish the game, but Smith made only one of two free throws and the game remained tied at 73 at the start of the second overtime period.
With fans chanting "De-fense," Blair limited the Titans to only 8 points in the second overtime period and sealed the win on offense with sharp free throw shooting by Patton (11 points), Smith and Williams.
DeStefano, who picked up his first win as a Blair coach Friday night, was impressed by his team's clutch free throw shooting, especially by Patton. "When I saw who was on the line, a player [Patton] who had been sitting most of the game, I knew we would get at least one out of two."
The Titans had drawn within two points with 30 seconds left in the second overtime, and had the opportunity to tie the game after Patton was whistled for a foul. However, Einstein couldn't convert on either foul shot and was forced to foul as time wound down.
Blair supporters, who had been on their feet since the fourth quarter, mobbed the court as the final buzzer sounded. The high-pace, high-energy game was one of the most thrilling in recent Blair history and, after posting a 4-16 record last year, the varsity basketball program was finally giving fans something to cheer about.
The offensive output by Blair was the most anyone could remember in recent years and was a welcome change from last week's ugly 39-point effort against Kennedy.
Smith and Williams, two of Blair's key players this year, also posted season-highs in points after poor shooting nights the game before. Williams, after only scoring eight in the season-opener, made half of his 14 field goals Friday night. Smith, also limited in Blair's loss to Kennedy, was glad to find his stroke. "I was going with the flow, trying to shoot myself out of a slump and it happened today," he said.
Chavez added seven points in the win, while Colquehon finished with six on the night. Joe Dubuche and Sam Francois each contributed four points off the bench for the Blazers.
Blair will need the same offensive output from Ross, Smith and Patton as well as from big men like Chavez and Muhammad Roberson as they take on Northwest this Friday.
Blair's next game is at Northwest at 7p.m. on December 15th.
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