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Dogged defense sends Cardinal O’Hara to Catholic League quarterfinals

PHILADELPHIA >> Elijah Smith was busy making noise on the offensive end in the first quarter Wednesday night, busy outscoring Archbishop Ryan by his lonesome over the first eight minutes of a first round Catholic League encounter.

But the Cardinal O’Hara guard knew that if the Lions were going to meet their objectives on the day, they would have to bring the energy on the other end of the court. One textbook close-out, and one clang off the Ryan rims at a time, Smith and his teammates delivered.

O’Hara blanketed Ryan into a putrid shooting night, the No. 9 seed stealing away from the Northeast with a 58-47 upset over the eight-seeded Raiders, O’Hara’s first Catholic League playoff win since 2011-12.

The win earns O’Hara (11-11) a neighborhood showdown with top-seeded Bonner & Prendergast Friday. The Friars edged O’Hara, 67-63, just four days ago.

The defensive end is where O’Hara made its money. Their dogged defensive effort, which started with a stifling 2-3 zone, held Ryan to a woeful 2-for-21 from 3-point line. Ryan was just 19-for-59 (32.2 percent) from the field. And the 7-for-14 effort at the line — including 1-for-7 to start the fourth — was the accumulation of frustration that would boil over closer to the game’s conclusion.

There wasn’t one defensive hero for O’Hara, though Kevin Reeves, Garrett Ripp and Smith, often tasked with charging out on corner shooters, were the most visible guardians. The stinginess did have a primary target though: The big No. 5 on the back of Ryan’s Colin Reed.

Reed burned O’Hara for 22 points in their regular-season meeting; Wednesday, he was shackled to a 2-for-10 day, including 1-for-7 from 3-point land, and a measly five points.

“In practice for two or three days, we were just focusing on getting all the way out on shooters, because we didn’t want Reed to light us up like he did the first game,” Smith said. “So we did good on that.”

“Colin Reed, if he gets hot, that’s when the whole Ryan team gets hot,” O’Hara point guard Antwuan Butler said. “If he’s not making shots, they won’t make shots. The first Catholic League game, he was beating us by himself. He was hitting a lot of shots, and then Ryan was going. Without him, they’re just not able to score.”

The same could be said, you’d think, of Butler. But O’Hara entered halftime firmly ahead by six points without Butler having registered a point and toting three fouls, two on the offensive end as the glimmers of frustration cropped up. Part of the comfort was provided by Smith, who hit his first four shots and tallied 11 of his 17 points in the first.

“If he wasn’t scoring, we might have been down going into the half,” Butler said. “He put us on our back and was getting buckets.”

Ripp hit a pair of late 3-pointers in the first quarter to put O’Hara up 18-8 after a quarter. He had eight points in the first half as O’Hara weathered an offensive lull in an unbearably sloppy second quarter.

The mantra going at halftime, as prominent as the “keep it up” defensive imperative, was that O’Hara’s leading scorer Butler would get going eventually.

The All-Catholic guard turned it on as expected, and in a way none of the Raiders could match. He tallied all 24 of his points after the break, nine in the third quarter as he pressed the issue going to the basket.

“They knew I was going to get going,” Butler said. “They knew they had to put me in positions to get going. Coach just told me, ‘close the game out. You haven’t scored, now it’s your turn to step up.’”

“We’ve always got confidence in Booty,” Smith said of Butler. “We know he’s going to pick it up no matter what. That wasn’t really something we were worried about. We were just focused.”

Butler was also the antagonist in Ryan’s unravelling. Jaquill Stone, Ryan’s leading scorer with 10 points despite 4-for-14 shooting, fouled out with 2:43 left on a hack of Butler, just after Stone’s 3-point play cut the margin to seven and offered slight hope. Likewise, Butler drew the fifth foul on Amin Bryant, who compounded it with a technical foul. Six straight points at the line from Butler, who went 14-for-16 at the charity stripe, stretch the edge to 13 points and removed all doubt.

Kevin Lezin paired nine points with nine rebounds for Ryan, Bryant added eight points and Devin Vargas’ heady play contributed seven points.

But among the many commodities Ryan lacked was someone like Butler to grab the game by the scruff of the neck and bend it to his will. In doing so, with the ample contributions from a youthful supporting cast that has coalesced quickly and will reach its potential long after Butler heads to Austin Peay next season, Butler’s leadership by example instilled its most poignant lesson yet.

“Now that the team sees Elijah Smith can do it, too, it’s trust,” Butler said. “We’re building trust into the team. We see that other guys can score for us and take us on their back. And I’m just here to close out games, keep everything in composure.”

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