star guard Justin Fritts had an unmistakable look in his eyes that spoke plainly to all who witnessed his dominance Friday night: Garfield Heights had to go down.
Fritts drew a bead on the team that ended the one round short of the Division I Final Four and dropped a load on them scoring a career-high 44 points and snaring eight rebounds in a 73-63 home victory.
The senior called it the best game of his career in the Northeast Ohio Conference Valley Division matchup between two teams ranked among the Associated Press’ Top 10 in the state with Mentor (9-1, 4-0 NOC) ranked eighth and Garfield Heights (8-2, 3-1) ninth.
Senior Danny Wallack was the only other Cardinal to score in double figures with 10 points. Senior Mike Davis led the Bulldogs with 21 points. Senior Marquis Jackson had 14, while junior Tony Farmer finished with 12.
Garfield Heights, which was ranked No. 1 at the end of last year’s regular season, held the top spot in the Plain Dealer’s Top 25 poll until suffering a stunning defeat against St. Peter Chanel in its second game of the season. They are now fourth.
Mentor, the PD’s current No. 1 team, suffered its only loss against Christ School of North Carolina, 73-66, in the Arby’s Classic championship game in Bristol, Tenn., over the holidays.
Last year, Garfield Heights defeated Mentor, 85-68, in the Division I, Region 2 final at Cleveland State and advanced to the state semifinals. That March night, Fritts scored a mere eight points.
Fritts knew he had a chance to make up for it Friday night, and he took it, even with a little bump on the nose early in the fourth quarter.
“When I saw this game (on the schedule), I got really excited,” Fritts said. “I just remember the feeling of when we were walking off the court at Cleveland State with the feeling that we just got beat. I’m glad that we turned it around today,” Fritts said.
Mentor head coach Bob Krizancic believes last year’s game against Garfield Heights was just the tonic Fritts needed to elevate his game on Friday night.
“That might have been the best thing to happen to him for this game. I think he’s one of the best, if not the best. I would take him above anyone in the state just because of the mentality and leadership. He had something to prove because of his performance last year,” Krizancic said.
Last season, Bulldogs point guard Trey Lewis ended the Cardinals' season with 32 points in that regional final, but he left for Penn State soon after, forcing Terrill Byrd to take over the team’s reigns.
Needless to say, Byrd’s lone three-pointer fell well short of his predecessor’s lofty marks. Both Byrd and Farmer fouled out of the game, but Garfield Heights head coach Sonny Johnson wouldn’t use it as an excuse.
“People can say something about the refs, but the refs had nothing to do with this today,” Johnson said. “It’s about us finishing in the environment we were coming in which is a great environment. And we’ve got to play better.”
This season, Mentor is averaging around 96 points a game, while Garfield Heights is at about 72, but the defensive prowess of both teams ensured neither would reach their mark in a game that never got out of hand on the scoreboard.
After a nip-and-tuck first quarter that saw eight lead changes and two ties, Mentor opened the second quarter with a 14-4 run for a 30-19 lead Wallack capped off with a three-pointer that forced Garfield Heights to call a timeout at 3:44. But Davis scored six of the Bulldogs’ next 11 points to help draw the Bulldogs back to 37-30 to end the first half.
Perhaps most impressive among Fritts’ gaudy 44 points was the timing of two crucial scores that staved off Bulldogs’ rallies at the early stages of the third and fourth quarters.
After Farmer opened the second half with a quick inside score to pull the Bulldogs within five points, Fritts immediately pushed them back with a three-pointer for 40-32 lead.
After a Fritts’ tip-in put Mentor up, 49-36, Jackson and Byrd canned back-to-back three pointers and Davis converted a put-back shot at the buzzer to complete an 8-0 run and draw the Bulldogs within five points again, 49-44.
Fritts, seemingly sensing the moment at the beginning of the fourth quarter, canned a three-pointer and promptly got nailed in the face after making the shot for a 52-44 lead. Garfield Heights’ Al Burge made a pair of free throws to draw within six points, 52-46, but the Bulldogs would not come closer.
Coach Krizancic said Caleb Potter might have cracked his ribs during the game, and the Cardinals played without Jeff Foreman who had a concussion against Elyria last week.
Mentor hosts Brunswick next Friday with a 7:30 p.m. start and faces Garfield Heights again Feb. 17 on the road.
Garfield Heights 15 15 14 19 63
Mentor 16 21 12 24 73
Garfield Heights – Terrill Byrd 3, Tony Farmer 12, Kenny Simpson 7, Mike Davis 21, Marquis Jackson 14, Jermaine Davis 2, David Wright 4.
Mentor – Brandon Fritts 5, Connor Krizancic 3, Mitch Trubisky 4, Danny Wallack 10, Justin Fritts 44, Kyle Morris 5, Michael Gallagher 2.