Little big man

Point guard Tennant stars in LaBrae victory

Tribune Chronicle / Joe Simon LaBrae point guard Benton Tennant drives past Bristol’s Gage Elza Wednesday night during the Vikings’ 81-58 victory at Bristol. The win keeps the Vikings unbeaten at 7-0.

BRISTOLVILLE — The height of the LaBrae boys basketball team played a big role in a marquee matchup with Bristol on Wednesday night, and so did one of the smallest players on the court.

A Vikings starting lineup that boasts players standing 6-foot-5, 6-4, 6-3 and 6-2 gave the Panthers fits with their length and athleticism. And the one LaBrae starter who doesn’t quite reach 6-foot was the biggest menace of all.

Point guard Benton Tennant, a 5-9 junior, scored 23 points, and a hounding LaBrae defense stifled Bristol in a 81-58 rout of the Panthers.

The bigger Vikings, the returning AP state poll champions in Division III, remained undefeated (7-0) with the victory. Bristol, whose only regular-season loss last year was to LaBrae, drops its second straight to fall to 5-2.

“It was big,” LaBrae coach Chad Kiser said of the size advantage. “We’re big to start with — Benton’s the only small guy in the starting lineup. The next smallest guy is Aaron (Iler) at 6-2. And we’ve got good guys coming off the bench.”

Tribune Chronicle / Joe Simon Bristol’s Damian Durst, center, is guarded by LaBrae’s Aaron Iler, left, and Connor Meyer (1). The Vikings beat Bristol, 81-58.

It appeared the game might be a back-and-forth, high-scoring battle as it was tied at 19 after the first quarter, but that’s when the Vikings’ athleticism started to show. They dominated the boards in the final three quarters, gathering numerous offensive rebounds that resulted in second-chance points. They also tipped passes, snatched loose balls and altered shots — causing six turnovers during a dominating second quarter in which LaBrae outscored the Panthers, 21-4.

“They’re big and long,” Bristol coach Craig Giesy said. “At every position, they’re a little bigger and longer than us, but ultimately that can’t be an excuse for us. We’ve got to find a way to beat those teams.”

The Vikings didn’t let it happen Wednesday.

Tennant and fellow starter Tyler Stephens were big reasons why as they provided much of the first-half scoring for LaBrae. Tennant scored 15 in the first two quarters, while Stephens added 13 of his 21 points and also played a key role in the paint — grabbing rebounds and blocking shots.

Tennant’s scoring was the biggest blow to Bristol, which didn’t have an answer for the hot-shooting point guard.

“If I get the open looks, just make them pay — that’s what I do,” Tennant said. “Sometimes it’s Tyler, sometimes it’s Logan (Kiser), sometimes it’s Aaron (Iler), but if they give it to me, I just let it fly.”

Tennant hit four of the Vikings’ seven 3-pointers, and he was part of a swarming defense.

Bristol’s leading scorer, Tommy Donadio, did score 23, but no other player reached double figures. Fellow standout Bryan Gabrielson was held to eight points.

Their lack of scoring was most evident during that second-quarter run, with LaBrae taking a 17-point halftime lead. The Vikings’ advantage swelled to 26 points before Bristol made a run, cutting the deficit to 16 midway through the third quarter. Stephens responded with a few baskets, and the lead quickly ballooned back to 20 points.

“This was a really good (Bristol) team,” said Chad Kiser, whose team hasn’t lost a regular-season game in two years. “They’re well-coached. They’re fundamental — they’re probably the most fundamental team in the area, by far. We just did a nice job matching the intensity that they had.”

Giesy didn’t mince words after what the defeat, saying he “very disappointed with this group.”

His Panthers haven’t been able to overcome similar tall, physical teams in the postseason the last few years. He hopes Wednesday was a learning experience for a group that has district-title aspirations in a rigorous Division IV region.

“They really, really played physical with us,” Giesy said of LaBrae. “And quite frankly, we just don’t see that enough, and that’s something we have to see more often. With our schedule, we’re going to see it a few more times.

“One of the things we just said, ‘This is the same exact feeling we’ve had in the tournament playing Cornerstone and JFK the last few years.’ It’s better to have that feeling in December and learn from it.”