Gjonaj leads Pilots past West Bloomfield

WARREN, Mich. - On most nights, it's somewhat expected that senior Josef Gjonaj is going to get his on the offensive end of the basketball court. He's a natural scorer that can get his a number of different ways.

But on Tuesday night in De La Salle's home opener at Bill Fox Gymnasium, Gjonaj was called upon to lead his team on both ends of the court against West Bloomfield. The Lakers' highly-touted freshman point guard, Ryan Hurst, entered the game averaging 22 points - including 26 against two-time defending Division 4 state champion Southfield Christian. 

But none of that mattered to Gjonaj, who shut down the rookie while also putting up a game-high 22 points himself in the Pilots' 69-56 victory over the Lakers.

"Coach put it in the scouting report that (Hurst) was ranked among the top 50 freshmen in the country or something like that," said Gjonaj, who with the help of his teammates limited Hurst to just 12 points. "Coach was hyping me up about it this week. So when he gave me that defensive assignment, I realized how important it was and I take pride in playing good defense."

The entire De La Salle team stepped up its defensive game, allowing just 16 first-half points to the Lakers, who entered the game having averaged nearly 77 points in its first two games - both victories - of the season.

And despite the effort required on the defensive end, the Pilots found enough in reserve to dominate on the offensive end as well. Junior point guard Linden Holder had a drive to the basket, followed by a 3-pointer to get his team rolling early on. Holder scored 12 of his 18 points in the first half as De La Salle jumped out to a commanding 37-16 lead. Gjonaj had 11 of his 22 in the second quarter alone.  

"I told the guys before we came out that we needed to play with more energy (than West Bloomfield). We knew they were going to come out ready to attack us. And that's exactly what we did and we jumped out on them early," Gjonaj said. 

The two teams battled back and forth in the third quarter, as the Pilots extended their lead to 59-36. Seniors Ryan Buszka and Nick Troszak combined for 10 points in the quarter, with Gjonaj and junior guard Will Smythe each knocking down a 3-pointer to keep the Lakers at bay.

West Bloomfield fought hard in the fourth quarter, cutting the lead down to as little as 13 points, but De La Salle made just enough baskets to maintain a double-digit lead and improve to 3-0 on the season.

"I thought we played great up until about 5:54 left in the game," coach Greg Esler said. "We had a big lead and kind of got a little complacent. But West Bloomfield is a great basketball team. We took their star (Ryan) Hurst out of the game. He came in averaging more than 20 points a game, but he came nowhere near that tonight. 

"I thought it was a great team effort. All of our starters played well. Carson Roose gave us some good minutes. Bryan SchneiderCaleb ReeseDominic Manion all played well off the bench."

Troszak and Buszka each finished with eight points in the victory. Smythe had five points and Schneider added four. Next up for De La Salle is a home matchup with Hamtramck, which will enter the game 2-0 with victories over Ypsilanti Arbor Prep (58-45) and Royal Oak (73-29).

For Gjonaj and his teammates, Tuesday's home opener couldn't have come soon enough.

"To start off the season with a couple away games, we were waiting for this home game for a while," Gjonaj said. "This is my senior year. This is the last time I'm going to get to play these home games. The atmosphere is tight, it's close, and that's what feels cool about this gym."

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