The first of two big Metro League tests in four days went down with an emphatic check mark for the second-ranked Eastside Catholic boys basketball team.
The next one gets tougher and the stakes get higher.
Pressure defense led to easy baskets in a big third-quarter scoring barrage as the Crusaders were ready for prime time and pulled away from sixth-ranked Seattle Prep for a 71-56 decision on Friday night in their first big road game in Mountain Division action.
Lurking just around the corner for Eastside Catholic (12-1, 9-0 Metro Mountain), last season’s Class 3A third-place state finisher, is its biggest test at home on Monday night against top-ranked O’Dea (10-2, 9-0), the defending state champion which beat the Crusaders 49-41 in last season’s semifinals.
The game versus O’Dea was originally scheduled for Tuesday, but inclement weather pushed it back six days.
“We’re definitely looking forward to O’Dea on Monday, their intensity and the (home crowd),” said EC guard Nolan Hickman, a junior who holds nine NCAA Division I offers. “It should be a good game. Me and my team are ready. It’s going to be turnt up for sure.”
The Crusaders shook loose from an 18-18 tie after one quarter to put away the undermanned Panthers (10-3, 6-3). EC used a 22-7 run in the third quarter to push out to a 58-34 lead with 1:10 left in the third. It was the defensive pressure that did the trick with guards Shane Nowell (21 points) and Hickman (13) leading the way in transition.
The Crusaders did what they needed to do on the defensive end to keep rolling along, forcing 20 turnovers and beating Prep on the glass.
“I feel like our ball pressure is tremendous,” Hickman said. “This put us in a real pretty spot right now. We’re going into O’Dea with confidence.”
Prep was without senior big man Nic Welp, who watched warmups from the baseline with crutches. The 6-foot-8 center and son of late UW Husky great Christian Welp has a “little tweak in his leg” and should be back within two weeks, Prep coach Michael Kelly said.
Eastside Catholic, ranked No. 18 nationally in the MaxPreps.com Xcellent 25 Writers’ Poll, comes at teams from every position. Junior center J.T. Tuimoloau added 13 points and senior forward Chika Nduka chipped in 12, providing the inside punch.
“They were allowed to go where they wanted to go, and they made us pay for it,” Kelly said. “We had to hit some really tough buckets for it to be tied in the first quarter. They are long, athletic and interchangeable.
“They were the more aggressive team tonight and the most organized.”
Jared Roznos, a junior guard, led the Panthers with 19 points, scoring his first 11 points in the opening 5:07. Braeden Smith added 10 points.
The third quarter was the real difference as Eastside Catholic, after Prep opened with the first basket, went on an 8-0 to turn a 36-25 halftime lead into a 44-27 advantage.
“We turned it up a little bit and made a run,” EC coach Brent Merritt said of his experienced group. “We kind of got dialed in a little bit. I’ve got a lot of juniors and seniors and they pick up on things. This is a smart group. It’s different from when they were freshmen and sophomores playing.”