This story is courtesy of Bill Tilton of Varsity Chalk Talk.
Mentor didn’t look at Friday’s Division I state semifinal against unbeaten Columbus Northland as an intimidating or impossible mountain to climb to get to the ultimate goal.
For the Cardinals, it was simply step 7 of 8.
Playing with the confidence, poise and basketball intelligence Coach Bob Krizancic preaches to every team he has had at Mentor over the past 20 years, the Cardinals are somewhere they have never been before in program history.
Mentor is at the eighth and final step of a postseason journey that started at the Euclid District in late February. The Cardinals pulled away from the No. 1 team in the AP state poll in the fourth quarter Friday, handing the Vikings its first loss of the season, 80-69, at Value City Arena on the Ohio State University campus.
It was Mentor’s seventh win of the postseason. If the Cardinals complete Step 8, they will bring the elusive state championship trophy back to Center Street.
“Playing (in the Arby’s Classic), Huntington Prep, Shaker Heights, Garfield Heights was huge for us. We always felt we were playing a loaded schedule, and those games helped us prepare the tournament and for a night like this,” Krizancic said. “Four of our five losses came in the fourth quarter when we had leads. The great thing about these young men is they learned from those losses and have gotten better.”
Jeff Foreman led four Mentor players in double figures with 20 points. Brody Nelson and Conner Krizancic each added 17 points, and Brandon Fritts chipped in 12 for the Cardinals (24-5), who will play the winner of Cincinnati Walnut Hills and Toledo Rogers on Saturday night for the state championship.
In the program’s only other trip to the state final four, Mentor lost in overtime to Cincinnati Moeller in the 2010 state semis.
Friday, the Cardinals hit 18 of 23 field goals inside the 3-point line, 6 of 20 from beyond the arc and knocked down 26 of 31 free throws. Mentor also outrebounded the very athletic Vikings by eight (27-19) and won most of the hustle plays.
“The leadership and the work ethic is why we are here right now,” Krizancic said.
“About five or six games ago, we decided to put Brody on the other team’s best player and he has become one of the best defenders in the state. Jeff has emerged into the point guard and leader we need. Conner has come up clutch in crunch time each of the past few games. … All of these guys trust each other and play together. As a coach, you love to see that in a team.”
Mentor led by three at the end of one quarter and by the same margin at halftime. The advantage was trimmed to 54-52 starting the fourth quarter, but the Cardinals outscored the Vikings, 24-15, over the final 8 minutes. The score was tied twice in the fourth quarter, but Northland (28-1) never got the lead.
Back-to-back layups by Nelson gave Mentor a 70-63 edge with 3:01 to play and clutch foul shooting and taking care of the ball put the win away. The Cardinals had 12 turnovers, but just three in the second half.
“The big things for us was taking care of the ball,” Foreman said. “We had two 17-point leads against Shaker Heights this year we let slip away. This time we played with a lot of poise and composure down the stretch.”
Michael Gallagher hit 3 of 4 free throws in the fourth quarter and finished with five points. Kade McClure came off the bench to score 9 points, including a dunk at the end of the first quarter and a big 3-pointer.
“This community deserves a state championship,” Nelson said. “We get so much support. We were close in football and maybe they will win one next year. It would be great to bring a state title home to Mentor.”
Krizancic, who talked about the inscription on his 1993 state title ring at Girard that says “TOGETHER,” said the win on Friday was as much about toughness as it was about basketball talent.
“We have a saying that we can’t win with boys and we can’t lose with men. I thought tonight we had some men on the floor,” Krizancic said. “Our guys continue to grow up and mature and that’s why we are playing for a state championship.”
Ty Hairston came off the bench to score 19 points for Northland. Armani Towns and Seth Towns each had 12 points for the Vikings.