Tuesday night was supposed to be a celebration of sorts for the Cuyahoga Heights High School community.
The Redskins honored their senior basketball players and also recognized the school’s softball team, which won the Division IV state championship last spring. All the Redskins needed for a perfect night was a win over their arch rivals.
That’s the part where Independence wouldn’t cooperate. The Blue Devils jumped out to an early lead then held on to steal a 53-52 win in the rivalry game.
“It’s always an incredible feeling when you win the rivalry game,” said Independence head coach Hugh McMahon. “It makes it even more special to do it on their court and on a special night for them, it was senior night and they were honoring their state championship softball team, and to go into that environment with an extremely young team and just really take it to them, it’s one of the best wins I’ve had in my career.”
Behind a dominating first half defensive effort and a balanced offensive attack the Blue Devils built a 24-11 halftime lead.
Independence played as well as it could have in the first 16 minutes of action.
“I think we played great pressure defense,” McMahon said. “We turned them over several times and got some easy looks. We contested shots and really boxed out hard so there were no second shots. We attacked their zone defense very well in the first half. “
The Redskins, who dropped to 12-5 overall and 6-4 in Chagrin Valley Conference play, roared back in the second half.
Cuyahoga Heights pulled to within 34-26 after three quarters and outscored the Blue Devils, 26-19, in the fourth but never could pull out the win.
Independence’s lack of a true big man hurt the Blue Devils in the second half.
“They really crashed the boards on us and got a lot of put backs,” McMahon said. “We had to keep battling for that. We’re always at a disadvantage in that area.”
Daniel Mathews scored a team-high 23 points to lead the Blue Devils and Ryan Dworznik, who finished with four points, did his best to fight off the Heights rebounders. Stefan Wygonski scored all seven of his points in the first half then stepped up his game on defense to help the Blue Devils seal the win.
“I thought Ryan Dworznik really stepped up on the glass. He played the best game he’s played this year,” McMahon said. “We also got a big contribution from Stefan Wygonski, who had a couple buckets with seven points in the first half and some key defense in the second half. We also got great guard play from Dan Mathews and Nick Brunsman and Kyle Stefanski down the stretch. What I mean by that, they made mistakes but they didn’t let it bother them. They went and played the next play and played it hard and tried to win the next trip.”
Cuyahoga Heights focused on trying to stop Mathews—a tall task on its own—which led to the rest of the Blue Devils getting more looks at the basket.
“They were playing us most of the game in some sort of box-and-one defense and Mathews still got 23. That’s a credit to his composure but also the guys were able to be aggressive and attack when Dan wasn’t open,” McMahon said. “I was very impressed with our efforts to attack the basket against their trap and zone, especially down the stretch.”
The win snapped a four-game skid for the Blue Devils and with games against Hawken and Beachwood in the near future it came at a time when Independence needed to create some momentum heading down the stretch.
“The end of our schedule is really tough. It’s loaded up with Beachwood and Richmond Heights and Hawken and Cuyahoga Heights, who are the better teams. It’s really nice to get a win against a good team,” McMahon said. “It just shows that the guys are continuing to work hard and get better. They proved tonight when they play that hard anything can happen.”