By Josh Brown
TROY — His team’s leading scorer nearing a career milestone.
A potential trap game against an underachieving but capable conference rival, with the de facto Metro Buckeye Conference championship game just a few short days away.
Troy Christian boys basketball coach Ray Zawadzki had plenty of potential pitfalls and distractions to worry about Monday night.
But his Eagles (13-2, 7-1 MBC) were able to put it all aside and fend off a fierce challenge by Emmanuel Christian Monday at home, putting together a near-perfect second quarter and building a big enough lead to survive a second-half rally by the Lions to put away a 45-32 victory — the team’s ninth straight — and keep pace with MBC co-leader Dayton Christian, which Troy Christian hosts on Friday.
“You know, I was more scared tonight than I would be Friday night,” Zawadzki said. “I told my wife before I left that for some reason I was a little uneasy about tonight. We’re dealing with 15-to-17-year-old kids, they know what the standings are, they know Dayton Christian is Friday. And while our focus was good in the first half tonight, I thought it drifted a little in the second half.”
Emmanuel Christian’s (3-9, 1-7 MBC) defensive focus, on the other hand, never wavered from the Eagles’ leading scorer, James Anderson, who entered the game averaging 19.7 points per game and was a mere 11 points away from scoring his 1,000th career point.
Anderson, the Eagles’ 6-foot-9 center, dealt with being denied the ball all night long, with two, three and sometimes four defenders cutting off any potential entry passes into the paint for him. He was held to six first-half points and only three in the second, coming up two points shy of the milestone with nine points and 10 rebounds on the night.
“I’m not disappointed at all. We got the win,” Anderson said. “We pushed through it and ended up winning. Honestly, I just get out there and play. I didn’t think about (the milestone) at all. My natural instinct is to just play.
“If they (my teammates) throw it to me, they know I’ll catch it if it’s in my area. But (Emmanuel Christian) just had fantastic held-side defense. I don’t think I got a lob at all the second half. But it doesn’t really matter at all when we win.”
“That’s a common thing we’ve been seeing,” Zawadzki said. “James is obviously our leading scorer, and we like to work inside-out. Teams have tried a lot of different defenses — but here’s the good news. We have a lot of people that make plays.”
And the supporting cast around Anderson proved to be the difference against the Lions.
With the Lions’ defense so hyper-focused on keeping the ball out of Anderson’s hands inside, the Eagle guards were able to get open looks on the outside — and they made good on their chances. Connor Case led the Eagles on the night with 11 points, hitting a pair of 3s in the fourth to help widen the gap after the Lions had cut an 18-point lead down to only eight heading into the final quarter.
“Our last game, we had great success getting the ball to the hoop with James, so their gameplan from the beginning was going to be to pack it in and double James, deny him the ball at all times,” Case said. “It kind of freed up some of the outside guys like myself, Colt Tanner and some of the other guys, and we were able to knock down shots. Obviously, we wish he could’ve gotten his milestone, but there’s always next game for him.”
“Connor Case hit two big 3s in the fourth quarter to help break that game back open again,” Zawadzki said. “He had eight points in that quarter and 11 for the game. So when you continue to get people like that to step up, it’s like an arrow that shoots into their gameplan and bursts their balloon. That’s a sign of a good team. It’s why we’ve won nine straight games now — we have a different person making big plays when they have to.”
And Izaak Frantom got the fourth quarter started with a putback in transition for his only two points of the night — points that kicked off an 8-2 run that gave Troy Christian the separation it needed in the end.
“One of our other big plays was our sophomore, Izaak Frantom, got an offensive rebound and a putback to start the fourth quarter and get the lead back to double digits,” Zawadzki said. “That’s one of those little things that a lot of people won’t notice because he only had two points — but they were an important two points.”
Case ended up hitting three 3s on the night, while Colt Tanner and Jackson Kremer each connected on one. Kremer — typically Anderson’s partner in the paint — finished with five points and nine rebounds, while Tanner finished with five points and five steals. Ben Schenk added eight points, going 6 for 6 from the free throw line on the night, and Cameron Strine finished with five points and five rebounds.
“It’s very simple, and we try to teach the kids this: you have to take advantage of what the defense gives you,” Zawadzki said. “And tonight, yes, Emmanuel said beat me from the outside instead of the inside, and I thought our kids did a good job of doing that while also trying to stick to what our bread and butter is, which is inside play with James.”
Troy Christian’s defense, meanwhile, didn’t give much of anything, turning a 9-6 lead after one quarter into a 24-8 halftime lead by not allowing a field goal in the second quarter. Adonis Davis led the Lions with 14 points and six rebounds and Fred Shropshire added eight points and six rebounds, with the majority of those coming during the second-half rally. But for the game, the Eagle defense held the Lions to 11 for 39 (28.2 percent) from the field.
Now Troy Christian will host Dayton Christian, which it currently shares the MBC lead with, Friday night. Back on Dec. 15, 2017, the Warriors handed the Eagles their only MBC loss so far, winning 44-36 by outscoring Troy Christian 20-3 in the fourth quarter.
And with most of the other distractions out of the way — Anderson needs only one bucket to reach 1,000 points — the Eagles can focus on winning the league.
“I won’t be thinking about it (the 1,000th point) Friday,” Anderson said. “I knew this game was a stepping stone for Friday, because that game decides the conference. We’ve just got to come out Friday and do what we do.”
“My biggest concern was that we’d run into a speedbump and not know how to get over it,” Zawadzki said. “Some maturity in Cameron and Ben and Colt really showed up tonight, and maturity in James, too. He didn’t press to get that 1,000th point. We’ve got a lot of games left, and he knows he’s going to get there. The most important thing now is that we continue to strive to be the best team we can be, and we’ve got a big challenge coming up Friday.”
Contact Josh Brown at (937) 552-2132, or follow @TroyDailySports on Twitter.