Cloverleaf's Sylar Jones goes up for a shot against Woodridge's Joe Mehalik during the second quarter. (RON SCHWANE / GAZETTE)
PENINSULA — The intensity and atmosphere left Cloverleaf’s boys basketball team yearning for more. The sting of defeat, however, will linger well into the offseason.
The Colts played their biggest game since a sold-out Dec. 14, 2007 home battle with Barberton. They were stout in a Syracuse-inspired 2-3 zone. They handled first-place Woodridge’s press fairly well. They held a two-possession lead after three quarters.
Then they fell apart against the defending league champion.
With five seniors among their top six players, the Bulldogs slowly, surely and confidently pulled away for a thrilling, hard-earned 49-41 victory that put the Colts (11-6, 6-4) behind by three games in the Portage Trail Conference Metro Division with four to play.
Clinching the first winning season since 1987-88 will have to wait until Tuesday at Springfield (4-12, 3-7). The league title drought that dates to 1984 will almost certainly have to wait until next season.
“This one hurts a little bit — actually, a lot — but it’s fun to be in these situations,” guard Brycen Holliday said. “We’ve got to come out on top next time (at Springfield), get a little win streak going again and get back (on track).”
Woodridge (13-4, 9-1) was held to its lowest point total of the season but extended its winning streak to seven games by owning the fourth quarter 16-4. Cloverleaf, which played a senior, four juniors and one sophomore, had five turnovers on its first seven possessions of the period — most were in the half court — allowing the Bulldogs to take a 41-39 lead on a 3-pointer by Josh Decker.
The Colts still had plenty of chances, with the killer being three shots to tie or take the lead with the score still 41-39. In a heart-pounding, 10-second sequence that involved two offensive rebounds, Holliday (10 points, 5 assists) missed an open 3-pointer, Nate Riley (2 points, 12 rebounds, 4 assists) couldn’t cash in a short floater and Matt Tanko (team-high 12 points) failed to bank in a contested drive.
The Bulldogs got possession, went to a four-corner offense and scored on an attacking drive by Joe Mehalik (team-high 11 points). Holliday answered on a reverse layup, but Woodridge’s Michael Massey and Josh Fleming combined to make 6-of-6 free throws over the final 13.2 seconds.
Cloverleaf made 1-of-9 field goals, 2-of-2 free throws and 0-of-5 3-pointers in the fourth.
“(Woodridge is) fundamentally sound, and you have to limit your mistakes,” Colts coach Jack Banks said. “When you don’t limit those mistakes, it comes down to possessions in the second half. That’s what really got us there in the fourth quarter.
“It’s tough, but I keep saying we’ve never been in that situation, something that magnified. I think this will really help us get ready for the tournament, when every possession counts. I told the kids, ‘You know, every missed layup, missed free throw, it magnifies when you play elite teams like that.”’
Neither team led by more than five points until the game-sealing free throws, as Banks and veteran Bulldogs counterpart Ric Blevins played X’s and O’x chess. The Colts were at their best controlling tempo with the new matchup 2-3 to complement their normal half-court offense, which produced 13 assists on 16 field goals, while the Bulldogs made short, furious runs with transition offense.
The first quarter ended 5-2 Cloverleaf after the teams combined to make 3-of-21 field goals (1-of-12 3-pointers). The middle periods were smooth and entertaining, however, as the Colts won them 32-31 and the teams were 24-for-49 from the field and 8-for-16 from 3-point range.
Many signs were pointing Cloverleaf’s way, particularly on defense. Guards D.J. Snyder (7 points on 3-for-14 shooting, 6 assists) and Massey and forward Decker entered play averaging 39.3 points but had only 12 on 4-for-17 shooting through 24 minutes.
Everything changed over the final eight minutes.
“We just gotta close games,” Holliday said. “That’s all there is to it.”
Contact Albert Grindle at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Woodridge 49, Cloverleaf 41
CLOVERLEAF 5 13 19 4 — 41
WOODRIDGE 2 17 14 16 — 49
Cloverleaf — Nate Riley 1-0-2, Nick Bailey 3-1-7, Sylar Jones 3-0-6, Brycen Holliday 4-0-10, Cruz Severson 1-2-4, Matt Tanko 4-1-12. TOTALS: 16-4-41.
Woodridge — Joe Mehalik 5-0-11, Josh Decker 1-0-3, Elijah Arnett 2-0-4, Michael Massey 2-5-10, D.J. Snyder 3-0-7, Jabron Driskill 1-3-6, Josh Fleming 2-4-8. TOTALS: 16-12-49.
3-point goals — Tanko 3, Holliday 2, Mehalik, Decker, Massey, Snyder, Driskill. Rebounds — Cloverleaf 29 (Riley 12), Woodridge 27 (Decker 8). Assists — Cloverleaf 13 (Holliday 5), Woodridge 10 (Snyder 6). Records — Cloverleaf (11-6, 6-4), Woodridge (13-4, 9-1). Junior varsity — Woodridge 81, Cloverleaf 43.