Mooney defense dominates Poland in surprise rout

BOARDMAN – With apologies to Sesame Street, the letter of the day Monday was ‘D’.

Cardinal Mooney played a near-perfect defensive game, frustrated Poland throughout and emerged with a shockingly one-sided 51-33 victory in a Division II district semifinal.

The Cardinals (11-11) held the top seed to 10 points in the middle two quarters to advance to Saturday’s district championship. Mooney plays the winner of Wednesday’s Salem-Southeast game.

“(Poland coach Ken Grisdale) does a great job,” first-year Mooney coach Brian Danilov said. “They run so many sets. We knew we were going to have to get up on them on D. We needed to lay bodies on people and box out. We played together as a team.”

The Bulldogs (21-3) had advanced to the district title game in 12 of Grisdale’s 17 years and won six of the last nine. Things began as expected as Jacob Wolfe scored the final seven points of the first quarter to give Poland a 13-9 lead.

From that point on the game belonged to the Cardinals. The climax came with two minutes remaining in the contest when freshman Andrew Armstrong found senior Doug Caputo on a press break. Caputo’s two-handed slam gave the Cardinals a 15-point lead and sent their faithful into a frenzy.

If that was the exclamation mark the sentence began in the second quarter. For the Bulldogs’ season, it was a death sentence.

The Cardinals scored the first 12 points of the frame to lead 21-13. Only Wolfe’s 3-pointer with 27 seconds remaining saved Poland from a scoreless quarter. Mooney’s defense was suffocating the Bulldogs’ half-court offense. When Poland had a chance to break the Cards’ repeatedly beat them down the court and into defensive position.

“Give a ton of credit to their kids,” Grisdale said. “They got up on us, they got through screens really well and took us out of almost everything we wanted to do.”

Mooney’s Mark Handel, who missed the majority of the season with a hand injury, said that’s exactly what his team came in trying to do.

“We knew they could only shoot; they’re not much bigger than us,” said the junior guard. “We had to close out on their shots and fight through screens. When a team like that starts hitting threes they could be really dangerous.”

The Bulldogs made just 5 of 20 3-pointers on the night and most of those attempts seemed rushed.

“A lot of times we settled on threes because that’s the only time we had a little breathing room,” Grisdale said.

Handel led his team with 15 points. All six of his field goals came on drives to the basket.

“He’s unbelievably quick,” said the 6-foot-8 Caputo of Handel. “You can’t underestimate his speed. He was hurt early and a lot of teams don’t know about him. He’s a great player.”

Caputo did his job as well, finishing with 13 points, 13 rebounds and three blocked shots. Armstrong added nine points. Five of those came in the first 4:30 of the final quarter as the Cards pushed their lead from nine to 15.

“He’s really come a long way,” Danilov said of the 6-1 Armstrong. “He doesn’t play like a freshman. You can’t play like a freshman in this ballgame.”

Mooney, which committed just six turnovers on the night, pushed its lead to 32-23 after three quarters. Wolfe had all seven Poland points in the frame. The junior was his team’s only viable offensive option on the night, finishing with 20 points, seven boards and three blocks.

The Cards made 20 of 44 field goals on the night. Poland was just 13 of 40 from the floor and 2 of 8 from the foul line.

Caputo said another ‘D’ had as much influence on the victory as the Cardinals’ defense.

“This new coach for us, Danilov, kept us in line,” he said. “He kept us doing what we needed to do.

“Knowing these great kids got my back, these great fans that showed up tonight, it’s great knowing we have one more game to play. I get to spend more time with family.”