Packed House Watches Westlake Withstand Viking Comeback

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Westlake's Jesse Boyce scored a game-high 24 points in the Wildcats' win over Valhalla last Friday.
Westlake’s Jesse Boyce scored a game-high 24 points
in the Wildcats’ win over Valhalla last Friday.

By Monica D’Ippolito
A big rivalry game that suddenly became suspenseful in the final minutes kept the filled-to-capacity Westlake gym buzzing Friday night. And when the host Wildcats managed to hang on for a victory over their neighbors from Valhalla, their fans stormed the court in jubilation.
“First of all, Valhalla is always a tough win,” Westlake coach Steven Gage said, moments after his team’s 55-50 triumph in front of an overflowing and raucous crowd. “They’re well-coached, they’ve got a lot of competitiveness and they came back. I thought we were in a good place, so give credit to them.”
After being knotted at 11 apiece at the end of the first quarter, the Vikings struggled in the second and third quarters, primarily due to the Wildcats’ tenacious full-court press. Valhalla only managed to score a combined 12 points in both quarters and fell behind 45-23 at the end of the third period. During the disastrous third quarter, the Vikings committed nine consecutive turnovers, losing the ball eight of those times before even reaching midcourt.
“We definitely struggled with a little bit of pressure from the press,” Valhalla coach John DiBetta said. “A couple of our young guys weren’t able to get the ball over the top of the zone and to the middle of the zone. It’s something we just have to watch film on and improve on.”
After being down by 22 points entering the fourth quarter, the Vikings showed tenacity and fight as they began to chip away at the Westlake lead. With the Wildcats backing off on the press, Valhalla found its rhythm offensively and started hitting from behind the arc. Meanwhile, the Wildcats, who were sent to the line 32 times, only made 56 percent of their free throws, keeping the Vikings’ comeback hopes alive.
“We just wanted to fight,” DiBetta said. “It was a time that we really got to see the character of our team. We have a bunch of young, inexperienced players. They fought to the very end and that’s what I was really looking for. It could have easily went into the tank and folded, but we showed a lot of heart in the end.”
Valhalla sank three consecutive 3-pointers late in the fourth quarter, forcing Westlake to close out hard on the perimeter. On one occasion, the Wildcats got too aggressive and fouled Orlando Clarke on a jumper from behind the arc. Clarke’s three subsequent free throws moved the Vikings to within 48-40.
“It’s something that we talk about at every practice, we want to keep composure, no matter what’s going on in the game,” DiBetta said. “It’s hard to do sometimes, especially with young players and inexperienced players. But they did a great job and that’s what I think was the main reason why we came back.”
However, Valhalla could never get any closer than five points as junior guard Jesse Boyce calmly sank late free throws while the Vikings misfired on last-minute shot attempts.
“These guys are working hard… (but) most of all we’re working on being a team with great character,” Gage said. “That means being resilient, and I think they were tonight. They bent but, you know what, you need character and you need determination and ultimately they showed it.”
Valhalla was led by senior Ezekiel Demasio, who recorded 17 points, nine rebounds and two assists, while Clarke finished the evening with 10 points.
“We were supposed to play two games before this to kind of break us in, but you know things happen with the schedule,” DiBetta said. “I’m actually glad we had this game as our first game because now our younger guys can really see what it takes to play on the varsity level. We’re going to prepare in practice and make sure we’re prepared for these types of games going forward.”
The Wildcats were led by Boyce and Daniel Greico. Boyce led all scorers with 24 points and wound up with four assists, while Greico finished with nine points, six rebounds, two steals and three assists.
“The program is just starting to take shape,” said Gage, whose team improved to 3-0 this season. “It’s my third year here. We really developed a nice youth system on all levels, the characters of individuals are unbelievable and it’s led by a lot of our seniors.”
Gage had special praise for one of those seniors, John Michael Picciano, lost for the season with a broken ankle in the season opener last week.
“He really means a lot to us,” said Gage, “and for him not being out there we fight for him every time.”

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