The 2013-14 boys’ basketball season got off to a rocky start for Blaine fans when Centennial spoiled the home opener 67-59 Nov. 22.
Already lacking in varsity minutes, Blaine coach Mark Arzdorf called on several new faces to make an impact in the opener.
Blaine senior wing and returning leading scorer Matt Barthels left the game early in the second half after taking a hit to his thigh and never returned. Barthels finished with nine points while 6-6 sophomore post Ben Scherer led the way with 13 points and 6-5 sophomore wing Nikolas Keller had 10 points before fouling out with less than five minutes left.
Most of Scherer’s baskets came on turn-around jumpers or put-backs less than five feet from the rim.
Blaine’s 6-8 junior post Andy Leo made an impact at both ends of the court and teamed with Scherer to help control the paint.
Leo made four field goals and finished with nine points, but he either blocked or altered Centennial shots a number of times in addition to swatting away the ball at least once in each half.
The team also played without 6-5 senior Jason Travis and 6-2 sophomore Kyle Cappard, who were both serving the first of two game suspensions.
“At one point we had zero experience on the floor for long stretches and you know what, they can put that experience behind them and realize they are varsity basketball players now,” Arzdorf said. “You can’t put a price tag on it or practice it you just have to get experience. It was good for a lot of our inexperienced players to be a part of that. Now they know they belong.”
Leo said the first half was surreal for some players in their first varsity experience. “Most of them hadn’t played on the court, ever,” he said.
Leo, teaming with Scherer for the first time inside, gives Blaine a nice defensive pairing. “That’s what he does,” Arzdorf said on the shot blocks by Leo.
“He’s a defensive presence for us. He’s long, got good timing on the blocked shots and that helps to know we have an eraser back there that if nothing else alters shots. He’s one of the most improved players in our program, but he has a long way to go. It was nice to see him play with some confidence and have an impact on the basketball game.”
Leo said the focus of summer work revolved around post moves, rebounding and free throws. Controlling the paint defensively is something Leo, now a junior, said he’s been working on since eighth grade.
Centennial was in foul trouble early on in the contest, but Blaine failed to capitalize on its chances but trailed by eight points at the break, 38-32.
Keller cut the lead to 35-32 with 1:05 left when he scored on a perfectly timed and positioned put-back after senior Chris Novak missed a lay up on a fast break.
“We were with them but we weren’t extremely pleased with the way we were defending,” Arzdorf said, allowing a good shooting team like Centennial to have open looks at the basket eventually translated into baskets for the visitors.
“Technique-wise we were a step off and our execution was a step off,” he said. “It’s early in the season and the nice part is they are all correctable things. It’s about daily progress right now, they aren’t giving out ribbons for the first game of the year. We just have to take our lumps here and work hard.”
Blaine senior guard Fedhi Gobena had nine points. Arzdorf said Gobena did some nice things at times, made some mistakes but was someone they needed to be on the court at all times, without Cappard.
“He was poised and under control for us, too,” Arzdorf said.
Led by two seniors, guard Clayton Byrd and 6-9 forward Kevin Grow, Centennial made a few clutch baskets early in the second half to extend its lead to double digits and never looked back. Byrd had a game-high 14 points making nine-of-14 free throws and Grow added 13 points.
Blaine was into the bonus situation with more than nine minutes left in each half, but couldn’t hit its free throws to narrow the lead or at least stop the Cougars momentum.
“It was nice to get them into foul trouble but I don’t know if we quite took advantage of it like we could have,” Arzdorf said.
The Bengals converted 13-23 free throws (56 percent). “Our kids were aggressive with the basketball, too, and if you are attacking the rim hard you are going to get calls and that might have been part of it, too,” he said.
This early in the season, players are still learning what is going to be too much contact and what they will be able to get away with. As a result, a combined 43 fouls were called in the game.
Centennial was whistled 22 times compared with Blaine’s 21 fouls.
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