St. Mary’s fends off hungry Pilots

ORCHARD LAKE, Mich. — The effort was there for the De La Salle Collegiate basketball team Tuesday night at Orchard Lake St. Mary's.

But the result wasn't exactly what the Pilots were looking for. Nor was it perhaps what they deserved. 

De La Salle opened each of the first two quarters with 7-0 runs, helping it to build a lead on the host Eaglets. But it could not sustain those leads in a disappointing 65-56 loss to the state's No. 1 ranked team in Division 1.

"I was disappointed because we had such a fabulous start to that first quarter," DLS head coach Greg Esler said. "And then we turn around and we were down two points in the first quarter. I was like, 'Are you kidding me?' We had outplayed them."

St. Mary's was coming off a 70-61 loss to Division 3 No. 1 ranked Flint Beecher Monday in the Horatio Williams Freedom Classic at Ferndale High School. De La Salle jumped on the Eaglets early, building 7-0 and 9-2 leads over the first two minutes of the ball game.

Junior William Smythe opened the game with a 3-pointer and fellow junior Linden Holder followed it up with a drive to the basket to make it 5-0. On its next possession, DLS's Josef Gjonaj attacked the hoop, scoring on a finger roll to quickly silence the St. Mary's crowd by giving his team a 7-0 lead. 

But the tide turned quickly in favor of the Eaglets, who proceeded to go on a 14-4 run over the next three minutes to grab a 14-11 lead. Senior Lorne Bowman II had four points during the run, while sophomore Kareem Rozier knocked down a pair of 3-pointers to get their team back into the game.

Down three points after one quarter, De La Salle again opened the second quarter with a 7-0 run to take a 22-18 lead. Gjonaj had a 3-pointer and a hard drive to the basket, while senior Ryan Buszka hit a short jumper in the lane for the Pilots. But once again they couldn't pull away from the Eaglets, who used a pair of 3-pointers by sophomore Jason Drake II to tie the game at halftime, 26-26.

St. Mary's scored six of the first eight points of the second half and used an 11-5 run to build a 37-31 lead midway through the third quarter. Despite the efforts of Holder, who had seven of his 13 points in the third quarter, or Gjonaj, who scored eight of his game-high 23 in the fourth, St. Mary's seemed to have an answer for every De La Salle basket down the stretch. The Pilots twice cut the lead to three points early in the fourth quarter - and had a chance to tie the game on a 3-pointer - but Bowman hit a 3-pointer on the ensuing possession to all but put an end to the game, extending his team's lead to 52-46. Rozier's 3 made it a 55-46 game the next time down the court.

"Bozeman, we lost him a couple times and Rozier shot the ball really good tonight," said Esler, trying to answer how the Eaglets fought their way back into the game on multiple occasions. "But I was proud of my guys. (St. Mary's), everybody is predicting them to win the state championship. Our guys are getting better and better. Caleb Reese and Triston Nichols, I think they played really well tonight. Ryan Buszka too, I thought he really played a good game. And of course Will (Holder) and Gjonaj had great games."

Gjonaj and Holder were the lone Pilots to reach double figures, but Nichols was close. The freshman finished with nine. Buszka added six in his team's loss. 

Rozier finished with 22 for St. Mary's (9-1 overall, 3-0 CHSL Central). Bowman II had 16, while Drake II and junior Julian Roper II added 11 and 10 points in the win.

The two teams will face off again on Feb. 11, at De La Salle. But next up for the Pilots (7-2, 1-2) is a home matchup against Detroit U-D Jesuit next Tuesday (Jan. 28). The game is scheduled to tip off at 7 p.m. De La Salle will then travel to Brother Rice on Jan. 31.

"We've dug ourselves in a hole in the league, at 1-2," Esler said. "We've got two (league games) this upcoming week, so we've got to be ready to go."

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