GARFIELD HEIGHTS — Two fateful minutes at the end of the first half might have cost Elyria Catholic a chance to join the Sweet 16 party for the first time since 2003.
The Panthers fell 80-71 to tall, talented and top-seeded Lutheran East on Friday in the Division III district final at Garfield Heights High School. The Falcons (17-8) will play Orrville on Wednesday at the Canton Fieldhouse, seeking their third straight trip to Columbus.
EC (15-10) had just trimmed a nine-point second-quarter deficit all the way down to 31-30 on a David Griffin drive and layup with 2:48 left in the half and had a couple of chances to take the lead.
It wasn’t to be.
The Panthers didn’t score another point the rest of the half.
“When it gets 31-30, most coaches will tell you to back it off, try to conserve it and don’t get in a track meet with them,” EC coach Rob Palmer said. “Our attitude was we want to win this outright. I can’t take anything away from our guys taking those shots. They were trying to win.”
Lutheran East closed out the half on a 9-0 run for a 40-30 halftime lead and the Panthers never could dig out of the hole.
“Our message was this is a championship game,” Lutheran East coach Sam Liggins said. “Teams are going to make runs. You can’t panic. You’ve got to withstand runs.”
“Our game plan wasn’t to slow it down,” Palmer said. “We were just trying to play smart. We weren’t going to play this game not to lose. We were going to try to play this game to win.”
“Just a few execution errors on offense helped their lead grow,” Griffin said. “They got a lot of momentum from that.”
“That hurt us,” EC’s senior Jarred Logan said. “It’s a game of runs, they say, and they definitely took advantage of those runs.”
The Falcons guards made a habit of dribbling inside for layups or being sent to the foul line. If they missed, 6-foot-6 junior Nehemiah Benson was there to clean it up. The guards — 6-4 sophomore E.J. Farmer, 5-11 sophomore Collin Albert and 5-10 sophomore Sirr Hughes — were simply too quick off the dribble for the Panthers to contain.
The trio combined for 49 points and eight free throws while Benson finished with 27 points and 11 rebounds. Lutheran East won the battle of the boards 36-26 and shot 53 percent from the floor. The Falcons shot 43 free throws and scored 27 points from the line.
“We watched Warrensville be able to get downhill,” Liggins said of EC’s victim in the district semifinals. “Our guards are quick and we had a little size advantage. We can mix it up.”
Palmer agreed Lutheran East’s quickness and size were huge obstacles for the Panthers.
“That dribble penetration and getting to the offensive glass,” Palmer said. “The biggest difference was they outrebounded us. There were a lot of loose balls, tipped balls that they got their hands on. It wasn’t for a lack of effort on our part. I just think their speed and their length, at the end of the day, won out.”
To EC’s credit, it kept fighting. Lutheran East extended the lead to 67-53 with 3:30 left in the game but the Panthers battled and got within 69-61 off a couple 3-pointers from Jarred Logan and David Griffin and a pair of free throws from Eli Palmer but that was as close as it got.
Edward Wright led the Panthers with 23 points, hitting a trio of 3-pointers and six of eight free throws. Logan and David Griffin — the two senior starters — finished their careers with 16 and 11 points, respectively. The only other senior on the roster are Gunner Ziegman, who came in defensively in an effort to cause some turnovers.
“They’ve been to state consecutive times for a reason,” Logan said of the Falcons. “They’re well-coached. They’re a good basketball team. Since they beat us, hopefully they can take it all home.”
“We’ve played a lot of great teams,” said Griffin, when asked where Lutheran East stacked up. “They’re very athletic. They had a little bit of everything. We gave it our all. We definitely thought we could have won.”
Lutheran East 80, Elyria Catholic 71
ELYRIA CATHOLIC (71): Jarred Logan 6-2-16, Jack Griffin 1-2-5, Edward Wright 7-6-23, David Griffin 4-1-11, Branson Taylor 2-3-7, Nate Damron 1-2-4, Eli Palmer 0-3-3, Connor Trockley 1-0-2, Gunner Ziegman 0-0-0. Totals 22-19-71.
LUTHERAN EAST (80): Collin Albert 4-9-17, E.J. Farmer 6-6-19, Jay Billingsley 0-4-4, Sirr Hughes 5-1-13, Nehemiah Benson 10-7-27, Duane Hamilton 0-0-0, Jalen Knott 0-0-0, Trevon Toney 0-0-0, Jordan Cannon 0-0-0. Totals 25-27-80.
Elyria Catholic 13 17 16 25 — 71
Lutheran East 18 22 17 23 — 80
Three-point goals: Elyria Catholic 8-17 (Wright 3, Logan 2, D.Griffin 2, J.Griffin), Lutheran East 3-9 (Hughes 2, Farmer). Field goals: Elyria Catholic 22-57 (38.5 percent), Lutheran East 25-47 (53 percent). Free throws: Elyria Catholic 19-23 (82 percent), Lutheran East 27-43 (63 percent). Rebounds: Elyria Catholic 26 (Taylor 5), Lutheran East 36 (Benson 11). Turnovers: Elyria Catholic 13, Lutheran East 11. Fouls: Elyria Catholic 25, Lutheran East 14. Fouled out: Damron.