By Chad Grant
COPLEY TWP. — Hudson 35, Highland 33.
The teams combined to make 25-of-81 shots, including 3-of-32 3-point attempts, and both scored in single digits the first three quarters.
Those statistics may appear to indicate an ugly and poorly played game, but they in no way indicate the way third-seeded Hudson and No. 10 Highland went at it Saturday in a thrilling Copley Division I Sectional final boys basketball game.
The Explorers (18-5), who won their 12th straight game, will play Stow in the district semifinals Thursday. The ninth-seeded Bulldogs knocked off No. 2 Twinsburg 63-57 in triple-overtime in the other sectional final. Highland finished 14-10.
The game was one of strategy, physical play and exciting momentum swings. Both teams utilized excellent defensive strategies and neither offense could put enough together to fully take control of the game.
Hudson came out and seized momentum first, playing a matchup 2-3 zone that stymied the Hornets offense and led to a 7-0 lead.
Then Highland guard Austin Casenhiser came off the bench and made an immediate impact. The senior buried a big triple over the Hudson zone and gave his team life for the first time with 2:39 left in the first quarter.
“We were just trying to move a little bit more,” Highland coach Michael Murphy said. “Obviously we had to get some shooters on the floor and kind of spread them out a bit.”
Hudson coach Jeff Brink was so infuriated by the big shot from Casenhiser he immediately called timeout and lit into his team.
“Such is life in Northeast Ohio tournament basketball,” Brink said. “Highland was coming off a tremendous win against Medina, which was a huge win for the program and for their kids. To come back and have to get up to play another game a couple days later is difficult. They got out of the gate a little slow, but they responded.”
Highland reeled off five more consecutive points — all by Brogan Scott (10 points, 8 rebounds) — to take the lead at 8-7 with 6:44 to play in the half.
The teams battled back and forth until late in the third quarter, when Highland’s Tanner Houska (13 points, 3 assist) got things rolling again for his team.
With the Hornets trailing 18-15 and 4:36 to play in the frame, the junior point guard had a personal 7-0 run to finish the quarter — and did it by finally finding a crack in the Explorers zone.
Houska used the dribble-drive and a pair of technical free throw makes to give his team a 22-18 lead and the momentum.
Brennan Scott then opened the fourth quarter with a pull-up jumper and Highland had its biggest lead of the game with a six-point edge.
Now it was Hudson’s turn to make a run. Keyed by mammoth center and Michigan football recruit Ben Gedeon (11 points, 9 rebounds), the Explorers went on a 10-2 run to regain the lead at 28-26.
Gedeon, who was recovering from a shoulder injury, bulled his way inside to score six points during the offensive spurt.
“What a great effort for a kid who has only practiced for a week,” Brink said. “To come out and give us a solid effort like that is tremendous.”
Houska found his way inside and hit a driving layup to knot the game at 28 with 1:20 left, but things began to crumble for Highland after that.
The Hornets, who had been stellar holding on to the ball throughout the game, suddenly saw that ability fail them down the stretch, when they committed three of their five turnovers.
That allowed Hudson’s Alex Mushock (9 points, 10 rebounds) to score on a wide-open layup after a defender cheated out to help cover Zack Brandy (11 points, 3-of-8 shooting) and give the Explorers the lead for good. Mitch Guadagni then dealt the huge blow by stealing a Highland inbounds pass and going the distance for a layup, and Brandy free throws capped a 14-2 run.
Scott hit a desperation 3-pointer with less than 10 seconds left to make it 34-31, but Brandy made a free throw to all but seal it. Scott then scored on put-back as time expired.
The Hornets employed the same strategy against Brandy as they had against Medina’s Billy Geschke on Thursday when they limited Medina County’s leading scorer to 11 points.
If no one knew who Alex Wood was before this week, they sure do now after he limited two of the top scorers in the talented Northeast Ohio Conference to 22 points on 8-of-23 shooting.
“The last two games we played teams that I felt like had some better scorers than us at this point,” Murphy said. “I’d rather get up-and-down and shoot and score, but I felt this (style) gave us the best chance to win.”
They key cog in both situations was Wood, who literally followed Brandy everywhere. Brandy was visibly frustrated in a tension-filled third quarter, but got the last laugh with a clutch old-fashioned three-point play.
“We face a face-guard box or a triangle-and-two in every game, but (Wood) was solid with it,” Brink said. “He did a nice job of doing it without fouling and staying clean. I told him after the game that I was very impressed with his game.”
Contact Chad Grant at firstname.lastname@example.org.