HOWLAND - John F. Kennedy coach Shawn Pompelia looked at each one of his players during a late timeout - holding a 10-point advantage over rival Howland on Friday night.
Instead of discussing Xs and Os, he hugged his varsity players.
Saturday's 67-58 victory over crosstown rival Howland was more indicative of his team's cohesive nature entering tournament play.
On Tuesday, the Eagles entertain Newbury in a Division IV sectional semifinal. The winner of that game plays at Windham on Friday. Bombers coach Marty Hill, who was there to scout JFK, and the rest of the near capacity crowd inside Howland High School saw JFK (8-13) hold off the Tigers' fourth-quarter surge.
"I think it clicked tonight for the bigs and the guards," Pompelia said. "They played together well and understand what we need to do to win."
Howland (6-16), which travels to Mentor on Wednesday for a Division I sectional semifinal, cut into JFK's 15-point lead (55-40) to start the fourth quarter with a 13-2 run. Reese Bogan's three-point play trimmed the JFK lead to four, 57-53, with 4:42 to play. Bogan finished with 15 points and 11 rebounds.
"We had a mountain and a half to climb," Howland coach Bill Bogan said. "We got buried in the first half. They shot a lot of free throws in the first half and we couldn't seem to find a way to get to the free-throw line."
Kennedy, which had six turnovers to start the fourth quarter and saw Zachary Usher pick up his fourth foul with 6:34 left, only countered with a putback by A.J. Grant.
The Eagles, which play the likes of Cleveland Central Catholic and Villa Angela-St. Joseph in the North Coast League, knew they could hold off the Tigers.
"We told them, 'We've seen Villa Angela-St. Joe's. We've seen Cleveland Central," Pompelia said. "This team is nowhere near the caliber of those teams. We've got to take care of the basketball.
"It's a great game to be in near tournament time - either you respond or you go home."
JFK built the lead back to 61-53 with 2:43 left as Grant found Preston Caparanis on the break.
Howland started fouling the rest of the way and the Eagles were 8 of 12 from the foul line in the fourth quarter.
But it was Usher's defense that sealed it for Kennedy as he blocked a Julian Lanier 3 with 25 seconds left and the Eagles holding a 64-55 lead. Lanier had six 3-pointers and 19 points.
Usher, who had 13 points and 10 rebounds, blocked another shot in the low post.
"My coaches kept telling me I couldn't let him get a big one off," said Usher, who had four fouls at the time.
Howland started the game up 17-11 on an Evan Steele 3-pointer, but Howland rallied as Issac Carrino, who had 15 points, found Luke Keck (12 points) on an outlet for a two at the buzzer as the Tigers led 17-15 after one.
On the play, Steele dove and landed out of bounds. His knee hit a bleacher and he was helped out of the gym, not to return.
"We're not sure at this time," Bill Bogan said. "Fortunately, we're blessed with a great trainer. We have doctor who's on the school board, so he's in great hands."
It was just the start of Howland's problems, which had eight turnovers in the second quarter.
Carrino's 3-pointer gave Kennedy an 18-17 lead with 7:45 before intermission.
The Eagles, going back to Howland's 17-11 lead, went on a 20-2 run to take a 30-17 advantage on another Carrino 3.
Things got worse for Howland as the Tigers saw 6-foot-5 Tommy Carnifax pick up his third foul and Victor Williams his fourth - both in the second quarter.
"Unfortunately, we came away with two of our most physical players in foul trouble," Bill Bogan said.
Carnifax got his fourth foul early in the third quarter, while Williams, exited with his fifth with 30.6 second remaining before the fourth. Carnifax fouled out with 4:02 remaining - leaving the Tigers without a post player.
Meanwhile, JFK had Usher (6-7), James Burney (6-3) and Alec Pontikos (6-6) in the post. Burney ended with 10 points.
"It definitely effects our game when they have a 6-7 kid from Belize, a kid from Dayton and a kid that was at Howland last year," Bill Bogan said. "It's not only hard to beat an all-Ohio team, but an all-nations team."
It was hard to defend Kennedy with 1:45 left before halftime as the Eagles went into a stall offense, four corners if you will. The ball finally started to rotate around the perimeter with less than 30 seconds left. Then, in the left corner, Kennedy's Eric Bofenkamp drained his only 3 of the game with seconds left in the half.
"He's not one to shoot, but we needed him at that moment," said Pompelia, whose team shot 6 of 7 from the floor and 5 of 5 from 3-point range in the second quarter. "The moment he was in the game, he capitalized on it.
"We had a hot hand tonight. We trust our players. We can go nine deep. I'm proud of them - all nine guys the way they fought."