Boys basketball claws past Cleveland

Islander bench steps up in Lutu’s absence

Islander bench steps up in Lutu’s absence

Matt Phelps
Mercer Island Reporter

The blood on the Islander basketball uniforms typified the type of game that the team played against Cleveland during the second round of the district playoffs Friday night at Bellevue Community College. Mercer Island literally had to scratch and claw their way to a 58-49 victory against a very physical Eagle team.

“This was a very physical game,” said Islander senior Matt Schut, who had 16 points. “They thought if they just bossed us around, we would get off our game.”

Mercer Island entered the game at a very big disadvantage. Its leading offensive weapon, and league Most Valuable Player, Leroy Lutu, sat at the end of the bench in street clothes after injuring his ankle at practice.

“I am very proud of all the guys. Those were some big shoes to fill,” said Mercer Island coach Ed Pepple. “This is a special team. They really stick together and have a lot of camaraderie.”

The Islanders were tight and tentative on offense to start the contest. Their first shot didn’t pass through the hoop until 4:07 had run off the clock. Luckily for the Islanders, their defense didn’t follow suite, as they trailed just 4-2.

“We have had the same starting lineup all year, and this was a team we had never seen before,” said Islander Drew Sexton, who led the team in scoring with 17 points.

Two Cleveland free throws gave the team from Seattle its biggest lead of the game at 13-4. But the Islanders would come barreling back. A runner theme began as Islander Jack Gala began to do the dirty work for Mercer Island. A long three-point shot by Schut missed the mark, and Gala banged into and through two Cleveland defenders to collect the rebound and put the ball back up for two points. The score not only got the Islanders back within five at the end of the first quarter, but it brought the Mercer Island fans and bench to its collective feet.

“Jack was Jack off the bench: Superman,” said Pepple.

Gala’s play, along with the rest of the bench, would fill the Lutu void. Islander junior Peter Zajac, who had spent the entire season on junior varsity, helped to create offense for other players and neutralized the Eagle’s speed with his own. Islanders John Poli and Will Hanson also came off the bench and gave Mercer Island curtail minutes as some starters got into foul trouble due to the physicality of the game.

The Islanders completed a 7-0 run on a Schut running right-handed floater, and eventually tied the game at 15-15 as Islander Evan Zahniser found Gala for two points in the key.

Zahniser finished the game with zero points but may have been the key to all the Islanders’ success on offense as he never turned the ball over, had six assists, five rebounds, a blocked shot and three steals. The Islanders finished the game with just nine turnovers against a fast and athletic Cleveland team.

“Evan is the catalyst for this team,” said Schut.

Mercer Island took its biggest lead of the first half, 41-32, as Schut earned a put-back shot in traffic.

Gala’s contribution was more than just his 10 points and six rebounds, and it was no more evident than during the waning minutes of the third quarter. He battled with multiple Cleveland players under the basket, wearing them down and playing mind games to frustrate the Eagles’ big boys.

“I have really focused on being mentally tough,” said the 6-foot-3, 255-pound forward who will attend and play football for Washington State University next year. “I have really learned to control my temper, and that has made a big difference.”

A big basket by Islander Paul Morse, who started in Lutu’s place, gave Mercer Island a big 10-point lead to start the fourth period. But the Eagles would get back within 54-49 before the Islanders put them away.

“This is a big win for us, but we have a long way to go,” said Pepple.

Mercer Island played Seattle Prep during the third round of the district playoffs on Tuesday (after Reporter deadline).