LORDSTOWN - When the Maplewood Rockets and the Lordstown Red Devils met at Lordstown High School on Saturday night, the game had huge implications for the Northeastern Athletic Conference divisional titles.
Both teams led their respective divisions (Maplewood the Stars Division and Lordstown the Stripes) by one game with one more conference game to follow, meaning the winner clinched at least a share of a NAC title. Having not won a conference championship since the 2008-2009 season, the Rockets used that as a motivation, trailing for just 64 seconds in a 71-53 win.
"I was looking forward to this game," Maplewood senior Ethan Obradovich said. "I wanted the NAC (title), and tonight we clinched it."
Obradovich played a big role for the Rockets (16-4, 13-1 NAC Stars), as Maplewood coach Nathan Kish gave the 6-foot-3 center the task of slowing down his counterpart, Lordstown's Nick Johnson. Along with some spells by fellow senior Stephen Pop, Obradovich managed just to do that, holding Johnson to two points in the first half as the Rockets jumped out to a 15-point halftime lead. Johnson, who normally averages 17 points per game for the Red Devils (12-7, 9-4), finished with 10 in the game.
Not only did Obradovich manage to slow down the Red Devils' biggest threat, but he also attacked on the offensive end. He scored two buckets within the first minute-and-a-half and accumulated 14 points inside.
"Obradovich is one of the hardest workers I have," Kish said. "He's a tough matchup for big guys because he's physical, he's strong and he's got some quickness. I think that helped us. Nick's a great player - I thought (Obradovich) did a very nice job on him."
Maplewood started the game in man-to-man defense, but quickly switched to a 2-3 zone, which helped clamp down on Johnson. The Rockets didn't just pack it in inside the arc, as they managed to jump some of the passing lanes and take it the other way for some easy scores. Maplewood recorded six steals that ended up with layups on the other end.
"We weren't actually sure what we wanted to be in defensively," said junior guard Nate Spitler, who finished with 16 points for the Rockets. "(The) 2-3 (zone) was a last second-thing that we decided to throw it and see what it would do. Coach said we were going to stay in it until it didn't work, and it ended up working for us all the way through."
In the second half, the Red Devils attempted on multiple occasions to spark a comeback, but the Rockets squashed any chance at comeback each time. One such point came at the 2:22 mark in the third quarter when a Preston Sutton 3-pointer pulled Lordstown within 11 points, but Luke Evan hit a runner and two 3s in a one-minute-and-a-half span to push the Rockets' lead to 21 points, 51-30.
Then, midway through the fourth quarter, the Red Devils managed to get within 14 points, thanks to Jake Jones scoring nine of his game-high 18 points in the first 4:24, but the Rockets answered again, with Evan connecting 3-pointer at the 3:19 mark that gave Maplewood another 17-point lead. Evan finished with 17 points.
"Lordstown never gives up," Kish said. "I've coached these guys when they were young. I know they work hard, I know they're not going to stop. So, those buckets after they scored were huge for us. I'm proud of my guys."
Although Lordstown lost an opportunity to clinch a conference title outright, Lordstown coach Brian Force said the team has a lot of motivation going into the final conference, as the boys program hasn't won a conference title since the 1975-1976 season.
"Even though we're only up for a piece of the title at this point, we go to Grand Valley next week for a game that means a lot to us," Lordstown coach Brain Force said. "Our kids will bounce back and give Grand Valley all they've got."
As for the Rockets, they have just one more conference game - at home against Bloomfield on Friday - to take an outright conference title.
"It feels amazing right now," Spitler said. "We only have one more, put ourselves in a great position to win it."