RUSSIA — Russia’s offense has been a work in progress all season. Prexisting offensive struggles isn’t a good thing to have when playing a team like Botkins, which has made a reputation of playing tenacious defense under coach Brett Meyer.
But Russia was able to avoid a letdown in a Shelby County Athletic League game on Friday and ran away late to a 54-37 win.
With the win, Russia (10-5, 8-1 SCAL) stays tied with Fort Loramie for first place in the SCAL. The Redskins (17-1, 8-1) beat Houston 68-32 on Friday.
Russia played four games in January and started the month 1-2, with lopsided losses to Fort Loramie and nearby rival Versailles. The Raiders lost by 20 points to Versailles last Saturday and looked to be on a downward trend heading into a league game at Anna last Tuesday.
But the Raiders corrected their course against Anna and used a big run in the second half to pull ahead of Anna and then held on late for a 66-64 win.
Russia had to avoid having a letdown on Friday against an opponent that plays at a much different pace than the Rockets.
“This was a way different game,” Russia coach Spencer Cordonnier said. “The whistle blew every 30 seconds. You couldn’t get into any type of a flow. The first half was just extremely sloppy. Both teams were. I don’t know if was good defense or what it was, but it was just sloppy.
“One thing is for sure, and I reminded our kids. Botkins is going to play their tails off for 32 minutes. Brett does a nice job with them, and tonight wasn’t any different.”
The Trojans (6-11, 2-9) pulled out to an early lead by capitalizing on Russia turnovers. The Raiders settled down against Botkins in the second quarter, though, and pulled away late to the win.
Spencer Heuker made a basket with 4:34 left in the second to give Botkins a 17-15 lead. The Trojans didn’t score again in the second, though, and Russia scored 12 points in that time to take control.
After Heuker’s basket, Mason Dapore scored two layups over the next minute to lead a 6-0 Russia run. Dion Puthoff made a free throw and Jordan York, Dapore and Evan Monnier added baskets before the end of the second to cap off the run and give the Raiders a 28-17 halftime lead.
“Mason got some steals there and some easy lay-ins, and that was big for us,” Cordonnier said. “He was the spark plug. He was in the position that he was supposed to be in and was in the right place at the right time to make those plays. It was kind of the shot in the arm that we needed at that point. We got a little bit of separation. I thought the kids played a little tight. Tuesday they played loose, and tonight they played tight, for whatever reason.”
Meyer said Russia’s run and a slow start at the beginning of the third quarter was too much for the team to overcome. Russia outscored Botkins 15-8 in the third to take a 43-25 lead.
“We had all the momentum going our way, but the last four minutes of that second quarter, we had too many turnovers and they were able to convert on those turnovers,” Meyer said. “We had a 4-point lead at one point and it turned into an 8-point deficit real quick. Not scoring those last four minutes and then not scoring much to start the third hurt. Outside of that little lull, we played pretty much even with them the rest of the time.”
Dapore led Russia with 16 points while Jack Dapore added 12 and Monnier finished with eight. Heuker led Botkins with 13 points while Ethan Butcher and Tyler Free each scored seven.
Though Russia has twice been able to outscore Anna, which leads the SCAL with an average of 61 points per game, shots haven’t been falling as much as Cordonnier wants. The Raiders have scored under 50 points seven times, including a 47-32 loss to Fort Loramie on Jan. 5.
One way the team has been try for offensive improvement is through rebounding and getting more second-chance shots. With three of Russia’s five starters being 6-foot-3 or taller, they usually have a height advantage.
“We play to our level of competition, outside of having one bad quarter against Versailles that made us end up losing by 20,” Cordonnier said. “Outside of that, we’ve played with everybody. Our kids work extremely hard, and we’ve really started hitting the boards. We wanted to do it all year and talked about it the first day of practice, but they’ve really started to concentrate on it these last three, four, five games.
“A lot of times, whoever gets the most rebounds wins games, as funny as that may sound. We’ve been outrebounded a couple of times this year and lost, so we’re really working on that.”
Russia had a decided rebounding advantage over Botkins. Meyer said it was tough for the Trojans, who don’t have a starter over 6-2, to contend in the paint.
“When you’re outsized like that, you’ve got to be able to use your body well, you’ve got to be able to get them away from the rim,” Meyer said. “It didn’t look like we were pushing guys backward; it just looked like we were trying to outjump them, and that’s tough to do when you have five or six inches on each one of your guys.”
Botkins has lost its last six games, with all but one coming against SCAL opponents.
“It’s been a tough stretch, but we’re battling,” Meyer said. “We seem to be running our offenses better. We’re getting smarter on where to be, we just have to be start executing better with the ball and limiting those turnovers. We’re working hard all the time, and that’s another positive. We keep playing hard.”
After playing four games in January, Russia has a busy stretch ahead in February before starting tournament play late in the month. The Raiders will play at Ansonia on Saturday and have a break before beginning a stretch of five games in eight days next Friday at Fairlawn. Among big games in that stretch is a home contest against Fort Loramie on Feb. 16.
“At this point in time, the kids are tired of practicing, tired of coming in here,” Cordonnier said. “They want to play, they want to get out on the floor and get the crowd in the stands and play. We’ve cut down on practice to an hour and a half in the first or second week of January and watch more film and try to concentrate on more details with each team we play.
“I really feel like we’ve got our best basketball ahead of us. It’s been a grind this year; we’ve been through a lot of ups and downs and heartaches and pains trying to figure out rotations and what’s needed for us to be successful. I’m not saying we’re going to win every game from here on out, but I think we’ve figured it out, and I really like the place that our team is in.”
Botkins hosts New Bremen on Saturday, and Meyer said they’ll bring a different challenge than Russia.
“We match up better with them height-wise, but they’re pretty quick,” Meyer said. “They’re going to have a lot of ball screens on the wing that we’re going to have to cover, and they have (Grant) Hoehne and (Avery) Powers who can put some points up pretty quick. We’re going to have to make sure we get back in transition and make sure that we always contest their shots.”
Contact Bryant Billing at (937) 538-4818, or follow @SidneyOHSports on Twitter.