It may have been the annual feast day of Saint Patrick, but luck had nothing to do with the Damien Spartans 63-41 rout of the Cantwell-Sacred Heart Cardinals Tuesday night. In this Division III playoff matchup between two of the state’s best Catholic high school basketball teams, it was Damien who would control the game from start to finish, thanks to outstanding team play on both ends of the floor. And no one was more pleased than Damien head coach Matt Dunn.

“I thought our guys were incredibly active defensively,” said Dunn. “Obviously, with their [Cantwell’s] size, we had a little bit of quickness advantage, and we really needed to use it. And I thought our guys really listened. We did exactly what we were hoping to do ... It was really fun to watch them play.” Anyone who enjoys watching efficient, nearly turnover-free ball movement and gritty, cohesive team defense would agree with Dunn’s assessment.

rnThe Bryce is Right

Fueled by aggressive 3/4 court press that collapsed into a pesky 2-3 zone on defense and their ability to create wide-open, high percentage shot opportunities, Damien stormed out of the gate to build a 22-4 first quarter lead. They never looked back. For the rest of the night, Cantwell’s deficit was at least 16 points. The Spartan’s early surge was keyed by junior swingman Bryce Peters, who hardly missed a shot as he poured in 17 of his game-high 22 points in the first half. “They [my teammates] just shared the ball and found me,” said a humble Peters of his strong start. “Once I got hot, I just kept going.”

And so did the rest of the team, as Damien also received solid efforts from San Diego State-bound senior captain Jeremy Hemsley (12 points), senior forward Malik Fitts (10 points), senior guard Andy Torices (eight points) and junior big man Kaleb Wilborn (six points).

rnHeight Mismatch? No Problem!

Going into Tuesday night’s contest, many assumed that Damien, which has only one player taller than 6’7” on its roster, would struggle to guard Cantwell’s 6’11” senior center Gligorije Rakocevic and 6’10 senior power forward Balsa Dragovic. It was a fair assumption, as both Rakocevic and Dragovic possess not only a distinct height advantage over any player on Damien, but also Division 1-caliber skill (next season, they will play for Oregon State and Harvard, respectively).

But Damien was undaunted by the formidable task at hand. Dunn explained that, during the practices leading up to this matchup, he tried “... to have a clear message of how we were going to defend them [Rakocevic and Dragovic]. We know that the hardest thing about big guys is to get them the ball sometimes. And our goal was to try to make it really hard on them to touch it, and then once they touch it, try to make it really hard on them to be comfortable. And I thought our guys were really unbelievable with that tonight.”

The Spartans swarmed Rakocevic every time he touched the ball, and hindered his every post move without fouling him (Rakocevic managed only one trip to the free-throw line). Easily capable of scoring twenty points or more on most nights, Rakocevic was held to just one point in the second half, and only nine for the game. Dragovic didn’t fare any better against Damien’s stingy D, and was also held to nine points.

Damien’s defense was just as troubling for Cantwell’s backcourt. The Spartans’ overwhelming quickness and impeccable timing forced the Cardinals into several turnovers and prevented anyone in maroon from establishing any sort of rhythm offensively — with the exception of senior guard/forward Antonio Cortez, who scored a team-high 14 points. “[The key was] team defense,” said Peters. “We didn’t come out as individuals. We stayed together. We followed the game plan...and made it hard [for Cantwell].”

rnUp Next: Cathedral

Damien’s next challenge will also feature a matchup of marquee Catholic schools, as the Spartans will take on the Cathedral Phantoms. Cathedral is led by junior guard/forward Kobe Paras, who was featured in our publication earlier this season. “They [the Phantoms] are really well coached, and have great talent,” said Coach Dunn. “That’s what’s kind of fun about this time of year. Everyone [left in the playoffs] is really good.”

After Tuesday night’s performance, no team is more deserving of being included in this “really good” company than the Damien Spartans, who ensured that Saint Patrick’s Day ended with a convincing win for the men wearing green.