Pilots pick up intensity in season-opening win

PONTIAC, Mich. - For all the practice hours put in heading into a season, there's nothing quite like taking the court to find out just where you stand as a team.

For De La Salle Collegiate, Tuesday night's season-opener at Pontiac Notre Dame Prep showed the Pilots and head coach Greg Esler a thing or two about themselves. A little bit of good and some room for improvement.

The Pilots overcame a few bumps in the road, dominating the fourth quarter en route to a 68-47 victory over the host Irish.  

"We came in tonight and should have been a lot more intense," Esler said. "We were a little bit selfish with the basketball but those are mistakes that we can correct. We did what we needed to do. We played better in the fourth quarter and got a win."

Notre Dame Prep closed what had been a nine-point De La Salle lead down to two, at 37-35, with 4:18 left in the third quarter. A pair of free throws by senior Nick Troszak, another by junior Will Smythe, and an offensive rebound and putback by Troszak to end the third gave the Pilots a 44-39 lead.

De La Salle outscored Notre Dame Prep, 24-8, in the fourth quarter. The Pilots finished the game up with a 20-4 run. Smythe and junior point guard Linden Holder each hit a 3-pointer and had five points during the run and Holder twice found Troszak underneath the basket for easy layups. Troszak scored six of his game-high 18 points in the fourth quarter.

"I thought Nick Troszak was great tonight," Esler said. "He battles all the time. He doesn't care how many points he gets, and he sets screens, dives for loose balls, and grabs rebounds."

Though De La Salle jumped out to an early 7-2 lead, Notre Dame Prep used the long ball to keep itself in the game. Senior Ethan Johnson and sophomore Jonathan Risi each hit a pair of 3-pointers in the first half to help their team keep their team within striking distance. 

That's when Esler decided to go small, inserting backup point guard Caleb Reese into the game to help his team close out on the Irish shooters and create more pressure.

"We went to a smaller lineup because Caleb gives us some speed in the backcourt, along with (Josef Gjonaj)," said the coach. "We weren't putting enough pressure on the ball. Those two guys started putting more pressure on the ball and we were switching our screens. It only took me 26 minutes to make those adjustments." 

Gjonaj scored in every quarter and finished with 16 for the Pilots (1-0 overall). Smythe reached double digits - with 12 points - as did Holder, who was making his first regular-season appearance since breaking his ankle back a year ago.

"It felt nice to get back out there and compete and play with my teammates," said Holder, who said he noticed a decline in his team's intensity throughout the first half. "In practice, we have high-intensity drills that make us compete and get better. We're just good at being intense and picking it up full court, which helps us get steals and layups. When we're able to do that, we can build chemistry."

De La Salle will return to the court Sunday, where it will face Warren Woods-Tower in the Calihan Challenge at the University of Detroit-Mercy. That game will tip-off at 3:30 p.m.

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