COPLEY TWP.: When you are undefeated, and expectations are high, sectional games can sometimes be tricky, especially when the opponent has a big-time scorer.
But the Copley Indians were not about to fall into that trap.
Senior Larnell Nealy continued his brilliant season Saturday, scoring 21 of his game-high 29 points in the first half, as Copley advanced to the Alliance Division I district semifinals and remained undefeated with an easy 73-49 win over visiting Ellet.
Copley (24-0) will face Lake Thursday at 7 p.m. at Alliance High School. The Blue Streaks advanced with a 61-27 victory over Boardman.
“I could not be more proud of the entire team,” Copley coach Mark Dente said. “They kept their heads on and didn’t read the press clippings. They are just going one game at a time.”
Dente’s varsity and junior varsity teams are a combined 46-0.
A.J. Gareri (24 points, 12 rebounds), Ellet’s top player at 6-foot-9, presented a formidable challenge, but Copley was up to the task. In the first quarter, it seemed Gareri might work his way through Copley’s entire roster of big players.
“We knew he was going to score, but we had to try to limit him,” said Copley senior post Daniel Ester, who picked up two quick fouls against the Ellet star and then rallied to play a fine game. “We have Jake White and Drew Bodnar, and they both did a good job on him as well.”
Gareri had seven points in the first quarter, and although Copley led 18-13 after eight minutes, the Orangemen appeared capable of making it a game.
But after shooting 6-of-11 from the floor in the opening quarter, Ellet (13-9) made just 10-of-37 shots the rest of the way. The Orangemen also had twice as many turnovers as Copley, 16-8.
“We haven’t played zone one time this year, but it’s something we’ve been working on, and I thought we might need it to offset Gareri,” Dente said.
The Indians zoned Ellet and it was effective.
Nealy caught fire in the second quarter, drilling three 3s, but it was his 2-pointer at the second-half horn that had the gymnasium buzzing.
The explosive 5-8 guard sank a LeBron-esque shot from the left baseline, inside the arc, but behind the backboard to give Copley a 37-24 lead at the break.
“I practice shooting on one foot, and I looked at the clock, and I knew I could get it up,” Nealy said. “(The coaches) tell me not to, but I continue to do it.”
“He couldn’t miss,” Ester said. “He got hot, and he stayed hot,”
The second half resembled a game of tag at times as Ellet chased Nealy around the floor.
“When we get a lead, we spread the floor and we’re hard to guard,” Dente said. “Larnell is showing that he’s easily one of the best point guards in Northeast Ohio. He’s so quick. When he’s hitting the 3, he’s impossible to guard.”
And while Nealy did the heavy lifting in the first half, his teammates got it rolling in the second half, building a 50-34 lead after three quarters, which expanded to 67-41 with 2:42 to go.
Junior Austin Brenner (10 points), Ester (eight points) and reliable senior Bryce Harvey (seven points) helped keep Copley perfect.
Juniors Jared Jones (nine points) and Joe Williams (six points) both return, along with Gareri, next season for coach Mark Fisher and the Orangemen.