By MATT WAGNER
MECCA - For the better part of two seasons, the Bristol Panthers held the upperhand on rival Maplewood.
Tribune Chronicle / Michael Taylor
Maplewood’s Luke Urchek (14) and Ethan Obradovich (40) celebrate after defeating Bristol on Tuesday night.
Going into Tuesday night's matchup, the last time the Rockets had defeated the Panthers came back on Dec. 2, 2011, a stretch that spanned four games and 25-and-a-half months. This weighed on the minds of the Maplewood coaches and players.
"That was one of the things that we talked about - that they beat us two years in a row," Maplewood senior Luke Evan said. "That was part of our motivation to come out and play hard tonight."
That motivation worked, as the Rockets led for all but 18 seconds early in the first quarter during Maplewood's 58-54 win over the Panthers at Oscar Grant Gymnasium. After being mobbed by the Maplewood student section following the final whistle, Kevin Jones wasn't afraid to express the importance of this win.
"This means the world," Jones said. "It's my senior year. It's the last time I get to play them. Just to be on TV on the (MyYTV) Game of the Week, it means everything."
The Rockets (8-3, 6-0 Northeastern Athletic Conference) rode a lights out shooting effort throughout the game, but especially early. Maplewood recorded a 66.7-percent mark from the field in the first half and finished the game with a 54.3-percent clip.
Meanwhile, Bristol (10-2, 4-1 NAC) struggled from the field for most of the game. The Panthers missed their first seven shots and just couldn't get anything going from inside or outside the arc, as they missed a few high-percentage shots and had a couple of 3-pointers rim out.
"We didn't get some things that we wanted tonight, we didn't get shots to fall until about the last 3 minutes of the game," Bristol coach Craig Giesy said. "The credit goes out to Maplewood. They knocked down shots throughout the entire game, they played very good. They beat us."
While Maplewood's shooting performance was superb, coach Nathan Kish praised more his players' energy and intensity throughout the game. The Rockets forced the Bristol ballhandlers into a few uncharacteristic errors (21 turnovers), while at the same time going toe-to-toe with the Panthers on 50-50 balls.
"Bristol is successful because of the effort they put in," Kish said. "You can go watch teams in the area - Bristol works harder than every other team constantly. So, what I'm most proud of with my guys is the fact that we matched their intensity an entire game."
Bristol's patented high-pressure defense did take its toll on Maplewood, however, forcing the Rockets into 21 turnovers. Those turnovers cut into Maplewood's chances on the offensive end, as the Rockets put up just 35 shots.
"We knew when we played them the first time in the season that turnovers were a big factor on why we lost," said Evan, who scored 13 points with three 3-pointers. "We turned the ball over a lot (tonight), but it's just something that we need to work on as a team and just stay calm."
Maplewood led, 54-41, with 2:56 remaining in the game following a Nate Spitler steal and layup. The Panthers went on an 11-0 run over the next 2 minutes, though, to pull within two points, thanks in large part to three 3-point plays by Brandon Lee, who finished with a game-high 20 points.
With 19 seconds remaining, Spitler went 1 of 2 from the charity stripe, and then Jones picked off the inbound pass and forced Lee to foul him. Jones' free throws pushed it out to a two-possession game and sealed the win.
"Just stay calm, don't let the press or anything get us and play us," Jones said of the mentality when Bristol made the late run. "We just did us, and that's why we came out with the win."
Considering the Panthers hadn't lost a NAC game since the 2011-2012 season, this win should send a message out to the league and potential tournament opponents, but Kish said the team has a ways to go.
"I don't know what's going to happen the rest of the year," Kish said. "We have a long way to go - we still have 11 more games before tournament time. A lot can happen, we have to keep that intensity and win the games we're supposed to. Hopefully, that will speak the statement - the next 11 games, not just this one."