WARREN, Mich. — The energy level in the Bill Fox Gymnasium was just a bit higher than normal Tuesday night.
Having Nick Troszak back in the lineup for the first time since Jan. 7 might have had a little something to do with it for host De La Salle Collegiate. The senior scored all six of his points in the first half, then saved his best for last, a pair of defensive gems in the final minute to help his Pilots knock off perennial Catholic League power Detroit U-D Jesuit, 58-51.
With his team clinging to a 54-50 lead with less than a minute remaining in the game, Troszak tipped Jesuit's inbound pass to senior Josef Gjonaj for a steal. Then, moments after Gjonaj hit one of two free throws to make it 55-50, Troszak did it again, drawing a charge to give his team the ball back.
"It was like a five-point game and I just wanted the ball and I saw him going to the basket so I was just like, 'I'm going to take this charge," said Troszak, who admitted he was a little nervous when he first entered the game in the first quarter. "I got into it pretty quick though. I do the dirty work for the team and I like it."
So does his coach, Greg Esler.
"We missed him big time," the coach said. "He's the type of player who doesn't always show up in the scorebook with a lot of points. But tonight he had some key rebounds and did a great job boxing out. He's an old-fashioned player. When he gets on the floor, he just competes. He's the guy we just cannot afford to lose and he proved that tonight."
Troszak's defensive stops could not have come at a better time. The Pilots led by double digits early in the second half, but foul trouble allowed the Cubs to get back into the game, as they cut the lead down to five entering the fourth quarter. De La Salle's struggles from the free-throw line in the fourth quarter kept Jesuit within striking distance. But in the end, those defensive stops and a key rebound from Troszak in the final 20 seconds allowed the Pilots to hold on for the win.
"We lost our composure a little bit at the end. We had a lead and it just evaporated real quick on us," Esler said. "Nick took that charge at the end and that was huge. We didn't put them away tonight like we should have. (Jesuit) has been to the final four three or four times in the past seven years and has won a state championship. Their kids are not going to quit. They're pretty young, we're pretty young and you're going to make mistakes."
After falling behind early, De La Salle mounted a comeback, eventually taking a 11-10 lead thanks to a William Smythe 3-pointer at the first-quarter buzzer. The two teams traded baskets back and forth early in the second quarter before the Pilots went on a 16-2 run to help them build a nine-point halftime advantage. Junior Linden Holder started it all with a 3-pointer and added a layup during the run. Troszak had a pair of layups and Gjonaj had seven of his 11 points in the quarter during the run.
Holder finished with a game-high 19 points, while Gjonaj finished with 18 to lead De La Salle (8-2 overall, 2-2 Catholic League Central). Freshman Sonny Wilson led UDJ with 16 points, while sophomore Charles Turner added 13 for the Cubs (6-5, 2-2).
"I think the team leans on me a little bit to get them going and put points up on the board early," Gjonaj said. "Once we established that lead, I told the guys we can't look back. And Linden played amazing, Will (Smythe) played amazing, Troszak. Everyone played good tonight."
Entering the game, the Cubs had pretty much owned the Pilots over the last handful of years. Gjonaj, in his third year on the varsity team, was 1-4 against Jesuit coming into Tuesday night. There were nothing but smiles on his face afterwards.
"It feels amazing," Gjonaj said. "Coach Esler talks about it all the time, about beating this team and getting back on track. This was big for coach and for us."
At the halfway point in the season, De La Salle, Jesuit and Brother Rice all sit at 2-2 in league play. They are all looking up at unbeaten Orchard Lake St. Mary's (4-0).
"This feels real good. We're 8-2 and we beat a quality team," Esler said. "And we're right back in the hunt in the league. We've got another shot at St. Mary's, and we played them pretty tough already up at their place. But first we've got Brother Rice on Friday. We're taking them one at a time."
The Pilots will travel to Bloomfield Hills to take on the Warriors (8-3, 2-2) Friday. Tip off is scheduled for 7 p.m.