PIQUA — Russia faced an experience and size gap against a Lehman Catholic team that had amassed 16 wins in large part thanks to strong defense.
But that didn’t stop the smaller and younger Raiders from putting on a defensive clinic for the Cavaliers in a Division IV sectional final on Thursday at Piqua’s Garbry Gymnasium.
Russia built an eight-point lead by the end of the first quarter and cruised from there to a 45-32 victory. The win advances the squad to a district semifinal on Saturday where it will face Jackson Center, which beat Fairlawn in the second sectional final on Thursday in Piqua.
Four of Russia’s five starters are underclassmen. Only player is taller than 6-foot-0: 6-2 sophomore forward Ben Bohman.
Four of Lehman’s five starters are upperclassmen and four are 6-1 or taller, including 6-6 sophomore forward Justin Chapman.
Despite that youth and size disadvantage, Russia (11-13) outrebounded the Cavaliers 17-15, committed less than half the turnovers Lehman did and shot better from the floor.
“We’ve been trying to do a better job of bringing more energy, both on offense and defense, and I think we’ve been doing that the last (seven or eight) games,” Russia coach Dave Borchers said. “That allowed us to get off to a good start on Saturday and allowed us to get off to a good start today, because we’re bringing it.”
A district semifinal berth was far from Borchers’ mind early in the season, especially after a 19-point loss to rival Fort Loramie in a season opener.
But the squad’s improvement has been apparent lately. The Raiders have won six of their last 10 games, including a 67-54 win over Fairlawn. The Jets beat Russia 75-48 in the teams’ first Shelby County Athletic League matchup in regular season.
“Our first game of the year, I almost wanted to cry,” Borchers said. “Our defense was not very good against Fort Loramie. But we started the very next morning. Instead of having a shoot-around, we worked on defense for an hour. We’ve been getting better and better at it.
“We’ve been going against different sized (opponents) and trying to see where we can help when needed. The kids have been soaking it up and have been playing team defense instead of individual defense. That’s kind of what it amounts to.
“There’s not one of us that can stop the Chapman kid. He’s got a huge size advantage on us and has nice moves inside. But as a team, we can contain him somewhat.”
The Raiders jumped out to a quick 12-4 lead and never trailed. They pushed their lead to 29-12 before Lehman scored five points in the final nine seconds of the second quarter.
Lehman couldn’t stretch that momentum into the second half, though. The Raiders used an 11-6 scoring edge in the second to extend their lead to 40-23 heading into the fourth and led by at least 12 points the rest of the way.
“We could never get anything going consistently on offense,” Lehman coach Pat Carlisle said. “Give Russia credit. Their pressure was relentless the whole game.”
The No. 6 seed Raiders will now try to upset No. 2 Jackson Center for a district final berth. They lost 57-35 and 55-30 to the Tigers in SCAL matchups in regular season.
“They’ve got the (SCAL) player of the year (in Aidan Reichert), and that’s well deserved,” Borchers said. “… He deserves player of the year for how he plays and not the points he scores. And he can score points. But he plays a very smart game and gets everybody involved. And the other guys are all capable, and that’s what makes them so difficult to defend.”
Jonathan Bell led Russia with 11 points. Zane Shappie scored eight points and Xavier Phlipot had seven points and five rebounds. Hayden Quinter added seven points.
“Jonathan shot it extremely well tonight, and good for him,” Borchers said. “He’s been our leader on defense as far as getting troops charged up. He guards the other teams’ point guard, and he caused a little trouble and some disruptions out there tonight to get us going.”
Luke Frantz led Lehman with seven points. Michael McFarland had six points and five rebounds, while Justin Chapman and Rossman both scored six points.
Russia shot 17-of-39 (44 percent) from the floor while Lehman shot 14-of-33 (42 percent). The Raiders had a 17-15 rebounding edge and committed six turnovers while the Cavaliers committed 13.
Lehman finishes 16-5 overall. The win total is the program’s highest in 14 years and the eighth highest in program history.
The Cavaliers tied for second in the Northwest Central Conference, which was their highest finish in the eight years they were a member. Lehman is leaving the NWCC after this school year to join the revived Three Rivers Conference.
“It was a phenomenal season,” Carlisle said.
Carlisle said that’s further evident by looking at who Lehman’s losses came to.
“Lima Perry is a top seed in their sectional,” he said. “(Upper Scioto Valley) is a really strong team. Legacy Christian is 19-5 and still in the tournament and then there were the Shelby County battles (Fairlawn and Russia).”
Frantz is one of two seniors for Lehman, with the other being Landon McIver.
Reach Bryant Billing at 937-538-4818, or follow @SidneyOHSports on Twitter and @BryantBillingSDN on Facebook.