SALEM: St. Thomas Aquinas’ defense disrupted everything Manchester tried offensively, and the Knights overcame the loss of two key players late in the game to escape with a 48-44 win in a Division III district final at Salem High School on Friday night.
With four minutes remaining and Aquinas leading 39-35, key seniors Will Burger (four points, eight rebounds, three blocks) and Anthony Snyder (five points, two steals) committed their fifth fouls on back-to-back possessions. Both had to leave the game. The Knights (15-11) promptly responded.
Senior Richard Zeren, who entered the game for Burger, was fouled and made a basket on the first trip down the floor, pushing Aquinas’ lead to 41-35. The Knights then came away with two steals — one forced by senior Reece Guidone, who checked in for Snyder — and twice got the ball to sophomore Anthony Moeglin, who made three-of-four free throws to put the game out of reach.
“It’s really a testament to our team,” said Moeglin, who scored a game-high 17 points, including nine in the fourth quarter. “We’re a close-knit group. You could feel us come together. There was something about the team, it was like glue. They ran off the floor and it just clicked. It was seamless. It was a cool thing to feel.”
Manchester senior Jamar Dukes had three baskets on three offensive rebounds in the final two minutes, but the Panthers (17-8) never got closer than five points until a basket with 1.5 seconds left made it 48-44.
“This is one of our goals and we accomplished one of our goals,” Aquinas coach Matt Hackenberg said. “We’re thrilled. We’ve got a team of guys and they all believe and they all play really hard. When you do that, you get rewarded with some good luck. We had some seniors ready to step in and take the places of those guys and they made some big plays for us.”
After all, losing in the district final last year didn’t sit well with Aquinas’ seniors. Moeglin was in the stands at that game last year but wasn’t happy either. They weren’t about to let foul trouble make it happen again.
“It was bitter to Will, to Reese, to Anthony, to all the seniors,” he said. “They still had that taste in their mouth. They came out and played their butts off. And now we’re cutting down the nets.”
It was Aquinas’ defense in an ugly game that put the Knights in that situation. Manchester committed 22 turnovers and was held to four field goals in the first half. The Panthers started the game ahead 6-0 and then watched as the Knights went on a 19-5 run.
“This is what I expected it to be — a grind, a defensive grind,” said Hackenberg, who decided to pull the reins back on his press defense and let Manchester come to the Knights. “We’d been a pressing team but I thought we could lock down in the half court and shut them down, and I felt for the most part we did that. Normally, we’d try to push the ball but we wanted to anchor our defense and sink our teeth in and get stops.”
Led primarily by junior guard Sam Pusateri’s five steals, Aquinas never allowed Manchester to progress through different set plays.
Dukes finished the game with 14 points and 11 rebounds and senior Nick Peyakov had 10 points and 10 rebounds for Manchester.
Aquinas advances to a Division III regional and will play Beachwood or Gilmour Academy in a semifinal at 6:15 p.m. Wednesday at the Canton Fieldhouse.
Ryan Lewis can be reached at email@example.com.