WARREN, Mich. - The atmosphere at De La Salle Collegiate Friday night was electric.
As the game went on, it truly felt like the postseason had arrived early.
And in the end, the host Pilots sent their fans home with an early Christmas gift - a 65-62 overtime victory over previously-unbeaten Hamtramck.
Senior Josef Gjonaj scored 14 of his 20 points in the fourth quarter and overtime - seven in each period - as De La Salle rallied twice down the stretch to remain unbeaten heading into the holiday break. Gjonaj hit two 3-pointers in the fourth quarter, both giving his team the lead. His bank shot to begin overtime and a 3-pointer less than two minutes later again gave his team the lead - in both instances. He added two free throws with 20 seconds remaining to essentially seal the win for his team.
"I got off to a really slow start, I don't know what it was. I couldn't get anything going," said Gjonaj, who had just four points at halftime. "I tried to keep a positive attitude and coach (Greg) Esler told me every time I came to the bench, 'Your shots will start falling, your shots will start falling.' Once we started to get going, everyone started clicking and I just turned it on. Once I hit that one shot, it was bottoms from there."
The Pilots did start the game on fire, rolling out to a 15-2 lead over the first seven minutes of the game. They scored 13-straight at one point. Junior guard Will Smythe scored the final seven over a span of just 29 seconds. Like his teammate, Gjonaj, Smythe came up big in key situations late in the game. His finish off a nice pass in transition from junior guard Linden Holder tied the game at 39-39 with 6:11 left in regulation. His next drive to the basket just 50 seconds later extended the Pilots lead to five points. And he hit three of four free throws in the final 43 seconds of the game to help his team fend off the Cosmos.
"During those down times we need to make sure we stay composed," said Smythe, who finished with 16 points. "At times tonight, our offense didn't have a good flow. We weren't moving a lot. We needed to create offense and get out of that funk. We had to find different ways to put the ball in the basket. That came with different movements and finding open players."
One of the big catalysts for the Pilots was Holder, who when he wasn't finding an open Gjonaj, Smythe, or senior Nick Troszak streaking to the basket, he was hitting some big shots himself. Holder finished with a game-high 22 points - including 18 in the second half and overtime. He hit three 3-pointers in the second half and was 9-for-12 from the free throw line after halftime.
"In the end, Gjonaj, Linden and Smythe came up big for us," Esler said. "I don't know, Orchard Lake might argue with me - but our three guards are pretty doggone good. They can really shoot the ball."
Despite falling behind early, Hamtramck never made things easy for the Pilots. The Cosmos used a 13-0 run early in the second quarter to surge past De La Salle (20-17 lead). They then scored the first seven points of the fourth and went on an 8-0 run midway through the fourth quarter to help themselves get back into the game. Guard Allen Amari had 21 points and center Noah Burns added 20 for Hamtramck (2-1). Burns hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to send the game into overtime.
"I didn't like our energy level to start tonight. We got that big lead and all of a sudden we quit playing for a bit," said Esler, whose team improved to 4-0 with the win. "Great teams win games like this and I think we have the potential to be a great team."
Each of De La Salle's first three wins of the season were by double digits. Friday night's game certainly provided the first big test for the Pilots.
"This was huge, playing in our first Friday night game of the year," Smythe said. "It was different, much like the kind of games we'll be playing in the Catholic League. It was good to get a feel for what it's going to feel like when we play those (Catholic League ) Central games - especially when you get a win like this."