Wildcats stymie Falcon quest for an upset

TJ Russell calls out South Whidbey’s offensive set with less than two minutes in the game. Russell scored nine points. - Ben Watanabe / The Record
TJ Russell calls out South Whidbey’s offensive set with less than two minutes in the game. Russell scored nine points.
— image credit: Ben Watanabe / The Record

Archbishop Murphy’s game plan was simple: Stop South Whidbey senior Riley Newman.

After a non-shooting foul was called late in the first quarter, Newman stood near the baseline, hands on his hips and gasping for air. Wildcat senior Tony DeGrazia shadowed Newman, bumping into him and staying within an inch of South Whidbey’s leading scorer.

Newman ran at least four loops from one corner, across the top of the arch, to the other corner and then across the baseline.

“They had a focus of that game, to begin with, to just deny me the ball and give me the least touches I can,” Newman said. “And they did a good job.”

Good enough for a 55-47 Wildcat win.

Newman led the Falcons with 16 points, including two three-pointers, but only two free throws.

“I think they let a lot of fouls go against Riley [Newman],” said Falcon head coach Henry Pope.

Falcon assistant head coach Ed Baran said poor three-point defense hurt South Whidbey (9-4 in Cascade Conference; 13-6 overall).

Wildcat senior Zach Smith scored 11 points in the first half, including three three-pointers. Smith led Archbishop Murphy (11-2; 14-5) with 18 points and only scored one three-pointer in the second half.

Trailing 31-20 at halftime, Pope started 6-foot-7 junior Zach Comfort in place of 6-foot-1 senior Sean George in the third quarter.

Pope said he wanted to go big to counter the Wildcats’ size. Five Archbishop Murphy players who entered the game are listed at 6-foot-3 or taller. South Whidbey has six players 6-3 or taller.

“Sean George is a great player,” Pope said. “He was just undermanned. They were just too big for Sean. We thought Zach [Comfort] gave us a better matchup offensively and defensively.”

Comfort scored eight points and had three blocked shots.

Archbishop Murphy sprang ahead of South Whidbey by 11 points on its first possession of the third quarter.

Wildcats junior center Zach Gordon had a putback that put the home team ahead, 32-21. Then Comfort got a rebound inside, watched three defenders collapse around him and scooped a pass to Falcon senior forward Tyler “Chuck” Norris for an uncontested layup.

Then, as it had all season, South Whidbey’s defense created its offense.

“We just got in some guys’ faces,” Pope said, recounting his halftime speech and adjustments. “We weren’t rebounding the ball very well. They were killing us on the offensive backboard. Archbishop Murphy was getting two, three shots every offensive possession they had.”

Russell drew an offensive foul. Gordon put the ball on the floor and drove to the hoop. Russell anticipated the drive, stepped to the right side of the hoop, planted both feet and took a charge on Gordon for his third personal foul.

On the other end, Russell knocked down a three-pointer from the top of the arch and sparked an 11-2 Falcon run.

“We told the kids, we’ve got five kids on this offensive court. We’ve got five kids playing their time. We can’t just be Riley [Newman] and four other guys standing and watching Riley,” Pope said.

“So the first three of four minutes of the third quarter they did just that — they boxed out, they controlled the offensive backboard, they played as a team, moved the ball around, got open shots — everybody contributed.”

Wildcats guard DeGrazia hit a jumpshot that disrupted South Whidbey’s run. Comfort made a layup. Both teams traded a turnover before Comfort snatched a steal that found Newman for a pull-up jumper.

Back on the defensive end, Comfort blocked Wildcat senior Sam Shober’s shot. Russell stole an errant pass and hit Newman on the outlet, but Newman’s layup rimmed out.

Archbishop Murphy head coach Jamar Williams called a timeout, but it didn’t work.

Falcon senior Ben Cary stole a pass that led to a shooting foul on Norris. He drilled the first free throw with a satisfying snap of nylon. The second shot banked in off the top of the shooter’s square on the backboard to put the Falcons in striking distance, down 34-32.

Then, Comfort drew his third foul with almost four minutes remaining in the third quarter. Archbishop Murphy had to inbound the ball from the sideline, but it was slapped out twice by South Whidbey.

The first was costly. Russell jumped and spiked the ball out of bounds, but fell on his elbow and had to come out for a minute.

Paris Felder, Archbishop Murphy’s leading scorer, received the inbound pass near the sideline. Newman met him there and slapped the ball off Felder’s leg and out of bounds to take possession. Newman brought the ball upcourt and drove into the paint, where he was met by three Wildcats.

George, in for Comfort because of foul problems, was waiting on the other side of the hoop for a textbook layup and a tie, 34-34. That was the closest score for South Whidbey since it trailed 5-4 halfway through the first quarter.

“I think offensively the rest of those surrounding guys outside of Newman have gotten better,” Williams said. “It’s a credit to those coaches, knowing everyone’s going to gear up to try to stop Newman, and they did a great job tonight.”

The Wildcats used a 8-0 run to pull away for good. Archbishop Murphy gave South Whidbey chances with a few turnovers in the final two minutes of the third quarter. The Falcons couldn’t convert on the offensive glass.

With six minutes remaining in the final quarter, Comfort picked up his fourth foul.

“It gave me more motivation to play well, knowing that I can’t take another foul,” Comfort said. “The team’s what matters. I would have rather not played well, and won.”

Fouls limited Comfort’s minutes, but not his presence. With Comfort out, Norris became the post defender and had two blocks in the fourth quarter, including one blocked shot on the 6-foot-7 Gordon. That play was indicative of South Whidbey’s struggles in the fourth quarter.

Norris blocked the shot, but at the expense of losing a rebounder. The loose ball was grabbed by Newman, but Gordon wasn’t boxed out and tied up the ball as Newman was surrounded by Wildcats. Possession went to the Wildcats, which led to Wildcat guard Zach Smith drilling a three-pointer to put his team on top 48-38.

“I think the second half of the season our kids have really bonded together,” said Wildcats head coach Williams. “And believe me, it doesn’t matter what the circumstance or what the situation is, they can find a way to get it done.”

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