By VINCE PELUSO
ASHTABULA TOWNSHIP —
Conneaut coach Tim Tallbacka thought his team needed to try something different to get them going early against rival Edgewood, so he tried running a 3-2 zone to start the game.
Unfortunately for Tallbacka, Warrior junior Eli Kalil came out on fire, hitting five 3s in the first quarter as he scored 17 of his game-high 31 points in the opening frame.
However, the Spartans withstood the early onslaught to trail by only 3 at the half, but it was the Warriors, who executed better down the stretch to notch a 61-47 non-conference win.
“After we lost games Monday and Tuesday (to North and Geneva, respectively), I kind of thought we needed a spark, a change of dynamic,” Tallbacka said. “We haven’t played too much 3-2 zone, but we put it in Wednesday and Thursday, thinking we could just change our mentality, the kids bought into it. Unfortunately, they hit six 3s in the first (quarter).”
Edgewood coach John Bowler liked the contributions Kalil gave on both ends of the floor.
“Eli really played well tonight, he shot the ball tremendous,” he said. “I thought he did a good job offensively and defensively, he worked real hard tonight. He didn’t force anything.”
Kalil, whose 31 points were also a career high, said he was just taking what the defense gave him.
“My teammates found me, we were moving the ball well and found the open spots,” he said. “It did feel good, once you get into a zone you just keep shooting the ball and it feels like everything is going in.”
Edgewood shot 7 of 13 from the floor in the opening frame, but just 3 of 11 in the second quarter as the Spartans quietly hung around.
A Jacob Spees (12 points) 3 to open the third period tied the game at 30.
After Conneaut adjusted to a man to man defense to slow down Kalil, Edgewood went to center Matt Fitchet, who scored all 11 of his points in the second half.
A Connor McLaughlin (9 points, 11 rebounds) bucket at the buzzer gave Edgewood a 44-37 lead after three quarters.
“Matt played big underneath, he’s playing really well right now and I’m real pleased with his effort,” Bowler said. “I thought we made some mistakes coming down the stretch in the second quarter and we’re trying to focus on finishing quarters and sometimes the last minute or so we end up losing focus.
“I really wanna finish quarters stronger (like they did in the third and fourth).”
A Fitchet score with 6:10 left in the fourth pushed the lead to 48-39, the biggest since a Kalil 3 in the first gave the Warriors a 14-6 edge.
Conneaut kept it close, but mistakes proved costly.
Fitchet drew a charge on a Spees breakaway with 3:45 that would’ve cut the deficit to 6.
Then, after Dylan Campbell (13 points) stripped McLaughlin at halfcourt, he was unable to convert a layup on the breakaway with 3:20 left.
Three more turnovers in the transition late in the period were too much for Tallbacka’s team to overcome.
“Against a team like Edgewood, we messed up three fastbreaks and we had three throwaways, it’s tough to win a fourth quarter like that,” he said. “We had an open layup, we had two or three fastbreaks... we spent a lot of time on those, doing 2 on 1, 3 on 2 drills and a team like us, we don’t have a lot of size or a ton of speed either so we’ve got to able to cash those in down the stretch to win a game.
“From an Xs and Os standpoint, that made a big difference.”
Two Campbell free throws cut the deficit to 50-44, but Edgewood took advantage of Conneaut’s missed chances to close the game out on an 11-4 run.
“We’ve done that in the past, played close games and play to the level of the team we’re playing,” Bowler said. “Conneaut played hard, I give them a lot of credit. They hustled, they made shots, they made us earn every point we had. In the fourth quarter, I think we just executed better and we got a few breaks, the ball bounced our way and that helps.”
Kalil, playing in his first Edgewood-Conneaut game, said he knew it was going to take a strong effort to defeat the Warriors county rival.
“It seems like Edgewood-Conneaut games are always a battle,” he said. “They always play us well, so we know we have to compete harder and harder every time we play them.
“It’s a good win, the last couple games we’ve played real good teams. This is a good one to start up a win streak and that’s what we’re hoping we’re going to do.”
Tallbacka was proud of his team’s effort in defeat.
“I thought we did a great job in the man defense in the second half, Spees did a great job on Kalil in the second half,” he said. “I’m very proud of our kids tonight. They played their hearts out in a visiting gym in a huge atmosphere.
“I was proud our kids came out and played hard and our fans came out and supported us tonight.”
Conversely, Bowler was happy his team could get a win and get back to the .500 mark.
“We lost a few games in a row so right now, that was a big moment shifter for us, we need to start winning some games and get ready for the tournament,” he said. “This is what high school sports are all about. Playing teams like Conneaut and Jefferson, we get a big crowd and our student body is tremendous.
“They come out and support us every night.”