EASTLAKE—The sweet taste of victory has eluded the North basketball team since its last win on Feb. 15, 2019.
North had lost 31 straight games before Jason Reik’s free throws in overtime sealed a 65-62 non-conference win over visiting Wickliffe on Saturday.
“Those guys deserve that,” said North coach Matt Vespa. “No one feels sorry for us but we’ve had every excuse in the books. It is hard but give credit to those guys because I keep preaching if we do things the right way, it will pay off. But, then you do things the right way and then you have to go play Brush and then you do things the right way and you have to go play a really good Mayfield team and there’s no breaks. For them to persevere and kind of fight through that and just trust the process, which I know is a cliché thing, but they really did trust the process. They deserve the success that they had.”
As they have during their last 31 games, the Rangers faced their fair share of adversity against the Blue Devils.
It started with leading scorer Kyle Randle leaving the game early in the first quarter with an injury and then freshman Sean Register headed to the bench with foul trouble after scoring just three points in the first quarter.
“Again tonight, we were handed every excuse,” Vespa said. “Our leading scorer was down, Sean was in foul trouble. We were given every excuse and they just kept going.”
Alex Vacha scored five of his 13 points in the first quarter and Ryan Baer, who finished with 14, added four points in the first eight minutes as the Rangers went on a 9-0 run to start the game and finished the first quarter with a 14-10 lead.
Wickliffe outscored the Rangers in the second quarter but still trailed North at halftime, 24-23.
The Rangers broke it open in the third quarter thanks to Register and Mo Morgan.
Register sandwiched a pair of jumpers around back-to-back Morgan 3-pointers as the Rangers opened the quarter on a 12-0 run.
Again, the Blue Devils responded and cut the North lead to 43-40 heading into the fourth quarter.
“Guys are starting to step up and lead,” Vespa said. “That’s one of the first time they’ve had a lead in the fourth quarter in almost two years. It’s learning how to close those games out.”
North held the lead until Owen Malaney drained a 3-pointer and a Wickliffe steal led to another Malaney bucket that gave the Blue Devils a 54-51 lead with 2:20 left in the game.
Vacha converted an and-one a minute later to tie the game at 54-54.
Wickliffe’s Danny Byrne then hit 1-of-2 free throws to give the Blue Devils a brief 55-54 lead but Reik hit a pair with 57 seconds left to put North back on top, 56-55.
Byrne added another free throw with :08 remaining to force overtime.
Baer hit a short jumper to give the Rangers a 60-58 lead and then blocked a Wickliffe shot. Reik ended up at the free throw line where he hit 1-of-2 shots and he followed up a Wickliffe turnover with a layup to make it 63-58.
Byrne hit a pair of free throws and Mason Bala added a jumper to cut North’s lead to 63-62 with 13 seconds left but Reik closed out the game with two free throws.
“Sometimes we didn’t make the right decision but we made enough of the good plays to get the win,” Vespa said. “That’s just a really good group of kids. They had every reason to say, ‘Eh, it’s happening again, it’s not worth it,’ but they didn’t do that. I tell them I’m proud of them whether we lose or win or whatever, but especially tonight the way they represented themselves and the program.”
Reik led the Rangers with 16 points, Register and Baer both contributed with 14 and Vacha finished with 13. Morgan added eight for the Rangers.
Bala scored a game-high 18 to lead Wickliffe while Malaney and Shane Adamski finished with 13 and 12, respectively.