When the Loyola Cubs held the Chaminade Eagles scoreless for the entire first quarter of the Jan. 6 high school basketball game, it was hard to imagine how the Eagles were going to score a basket, let alone get themselves back into the lopsided game.

Though the Cubs weren’t having their best shooting night in the first half, their unyielding defense helped them jump to a 22-6 lead at the midway buzzer. The script completely flipped in the second half, however, as Chaminade caught fire and cut the deficit to as little as five points in the fourth quarter, and the stunned home team found itself in an unexpected barnburner.

Thankfully for the Cubs, playing in a close game was far from being a new experience — of Loyola’s last four games (all losses) three were decided by five points or less. But during the Jan. 6 game — a game Loyola players and staff deemed a “must-win” — the Cubs were finally on the favorable side of a high tension battle thanks to clutch, poised play in the final minutes.

“This was definitely a must-win tonight,” says senior center Henry Welsh. “The coaches stressed that in practice. We were able to make some shots down the stretch and make some plays to get it done.”

“We lost four straight, so we knew we really needed to get back on track,” adds senior swingman Josh Lavergne. “This was great for us.”

Chaminade shutdown

Looking like a team desperate for a win, Loyola set its defense in a swarming full court press right from the get go, resulting in a number of early backcourt turnovers for Chaminade. And when the Eagles did manage to set up their offense, they simply couldn’t find any open lanes or clean looks against the Cubs’ incredibly active half-court D.

Loyola’s defensive efforts were fueled by Welsh, who recorded five blocks on the night and altered countless other Chaminade shot attempts near the basket.

“It was important for us to defend the three-point line and get some stops, and I think we did a good job of doing that,” says Welsh.

“I think we did a really good job of helping off on drives, and we were really able to shut them down in terms of keeping them from getting to the rim in the first half.”

Meanwhile, on the other end of the floor, the Cubs struggled early on to get in rhythm offensively, but received some hard-earned low post buckets from Welsh (12 points on the night) and timely outside shooting from Lavergne (11 points, three three-pointers).

Catching fire

Despite its first quarter goose egg and overall nightmarish first half, Chaminade emerged from the locker room after halftime with a renewed sense of purpose. Senior point guard Josh Hauser, who looked clearly rattled in the first half, was unstoppable in the second act, exploding for 22 of his game-high 24 points after the intermission.

He capped off a stellar third quarter by hitting a tremendous 30-footer fading away from the basket just before the buzzer. The Eagles’ efforts were also fueled by senior guard Aidan Dolan (nine points), who drilled three triples at crucial moments.

“You have to give a lot of credit to Chaminade’s guards,” says Welsh. “We knew at some point they were going to get going and start hitting their shots, and they did that in the second half.”

On the other end of the floor, Chaminade adjusted its defense to double-team Welsh more frequently and force other Cubs to make shots.

Luckily for Loyola, junior guard Benjamin Grundy (11 points, eight in the second half) was up for the challenge, as was senior guard Joshua Curls (eight points), who was able to convert some big shots near the basket in spite of 6’11” freshman Makur Maker’s (five blocks) dominant interior presence.

“They went on their run, but we fought hard and stayed composed,” says Lavergne.

Thanks to that composure, the Cubs didn’t panic when they saw their lead, once as high as 14 points, dwindle to 41-36 with just 2:30 left in the game. Though Chaminade kept the pressure on and continued to make things interesting until the final buzzer, Loyola strung together the defensive stops and scores it needed to thwart the Eagles’ valiant comeback.

“We were able to hunker down and get the timely stops that we needed to get in order to maintain our lead,” recalls Welsh of the final frame.

“We’ve worked our butts off to be in shape and have the ability to fight through, work hard on defense and get stops. We were just firing each other up and letting each other know that we’d make it happen.”