By Brian Paglia
DeAndre Stroud caught a pass at the top of the key with seconds ticking away needing to find an open look to the basket to break a tie game. He looked, hoping to penetrate to the basket, but instead found three Stephenson defenders encircled him, forcing him to take a deep and rushed 3-point shot that missed.
Stephenson summoned a renewed urgency on defense in the final minutes of regulation when it switched to a zone defense that disoriented the Lions. Overtime offered no relief for Luella. Unable to find open looks, the Lions scored just three points in overtime and lost its third consecutive game, 68-62, at home Friday night.
"They really digged in at the end and was able to communicate," Stephenson boys basketball coach Curtis Gilleylen said. "Really bothered the shooters. Didn't give them any open looks at all. When it came down to crunch time, they really bothered a couple of shots at the end."
"To their credit, (Stephenson) came out and gave us a different look than they had given the whole game," Luella coach Jamond Sims said. "Good change-up. I just wish we had been able to see it and adjust, even though we hadn't seen it the whole first three quarters."
"They stepped it up on defense," Stroud said. "It was a lackadaisical effort from us. We didn't execute like Coach Sims told us to. That's been our achilles heel."
Stephenson (11-6, 5-2 Region 2-AAAAA) jumped on host Luella from the outset, using a polished transition offense to take advantage of Lions turnovers. As the Jaguars built a 20-7 lead in the first five minutes, Luella had more turnovers (four) than field goals (three).
The Lions (10-5, 3-5) whittled down the lead to seven by the end of the first quarter by cutting down on turnovers -- they had just 16 to Stephenson's 25 -- and using their own swarming full-court pressure defense. When Stephenson pulled ahead by six with under three minutes left in the game, Luella leaned on its defense again to close with a 6-0 run.
"(Luella's) not going to give anything easy," Gilleylan said. "You get a 15- or 20-point lead, they're going to scrap back. I knew those guys would start to make a run at it at the end."
Then Stephenson switched to a 2-3 zone defense in overtime that tested Luella's ability to execute on offense. The Lions instead rushed through its half-court sets, driving into double-teams and taking errant jumpshots.
Aaron Crossland gave Luella a 62-59 lead with a 3-pointer just seconds into overtime, but the Lions never scored again.
"We didn't take the shots that we wanted. We took the shots that they chose to give us," Sims said.
Luella received contributions on offense from nine different players, including senior C.J. Brown, who led the team with 11 points off the bench. Crossland finished with 10 points and forwards Bryan Barber and Jonathan Lonas each had eight points.
Stephenson girls 51, Luella 49
The Lady Lions leading scorer was a sophomore guard listed as 5-foot-4 with a deadly shot from long distance. Stephenson's leading scorers were a 5-foot-9 guard and a 6-foot-2 forward.
Size was an obvious disadvantage for Luella against the No. 6 Lady Jaguars, and yet it almost didn't matter. But the deciding basket was emblamatic of the Lady Lions' biggest obstacle -- a second-chance shot for Stephenson that dealt host Luella a crushing loss.
"We're just oversized, no matter who we play," Luella coach Greg Wilson said. "That's what I stress and stress and stress. We're not going to be able to just stand there and outrebound them. Both times they beat us is because of putbacks and second shots."
Britney Guy led Luella (7-8, 3-4 Region 2-AAAAA) with 25 points and Breonna Mosely finished with 10 points.