Wooster >> Oberlin is one step closer to avenging last season’s regional semifinal loss after steamrolling No. 3 Rittman, 55-28, in a Division III Wooster District semifinal on March 6.
The first-seeded Phoenix, who have been plagued by slow starts all season, jumped to a 21-5 lead after one quarter, and despite a sloppy second quarter on both sides, amped up the pressure and never let Rittman get closer than nine points in the second half.
“It was crucial. But this team is built for this run,” Oberlin coach Kurt Russell said of his team’s fast start. “The first (tournament) game we played against Norwayne, we started off fast and I think the kids are realizing that (it’s) tournament time, and if you lose, you go home. And so we want to start fast.
“It’s been one of our major problems this year, starting off really, really slow, and we made an effort to really start off fast.”
Oberlin (19-5) will face the winner of No. 8 Orrville vs. No. 2 Northwestern in a district final March 10 at Wooster High School.
The Phoenix roster isn’t short on shooters, but against Rittman, it was the defense that shined. Oberlin held the Indians to just one point in the fourth quarter, wearing down a rattled Rittman team that shot 11 of 48, including 4 of 20 from beyond the arc.
“That was probably the most intense defense we’ve seen all year,” Rittman coach Chad Bever said. “I think (Oberlin’s) pressure got to us. We only had 10 turnovers, but the pressure itself just forced us out of our comfort zone.
“This didn’t look like us tonight and that’s a credit to Oberlin.”
Donald Johnson had 14 points and 10 rebounds for the Phoenix. Junior Justin Smith was the X-factor. The 6-foot-2 Smith had 14 points, including a clutch 3-pointer at the end of the first half to extend the Oberlin lead to 12.
“I couldn’t have done it without my guys,” Smith said. “(Donald) draws three people at a time, the man with the ball has one, and then there’s some help, so my guys did that for me.
“We practice those shots. We earn those shots in the game, we earned it, (Donald) earned it, we all earned it, so for me to be in a position to knock it down, it’s big. I like it, I embrace it for my teammates.”
“I can’t say enough about what he does for our team,” Johnson said of his teammate. “I tell him all the time, ‘How you play is how we’re going to play.’ When he brings energy it’s contagious.”
With the sting of last season’s double-overtime loss to St. Thomas Aquinas lingering since last March, it’s now or never for Oberlin — which boasts the same lineup that got the Phoenix to last year’s sweet sixteen.
“We lost the biggest game of our life because we didn’t control the ball, so coming in on Friday it’s like we know what we have to take care of to get back where we need to get, we know what we have to do to get where we need to be, and that’s just what we’re going to come in and do,” Smith said.
Johnson agreed, saying this year’s focus was playing on their terms — controlling the game from start to finish.
“Me, Justin, all the guys on the team, we’ve been here before,” Johnson said. “We know what it takes.
“This year we’ve been kind of working on that, you know, getting the lead, holding it, scoring when we want to, how we want to and building a lead. Having a senior-heavy team and juniors who have been here before, we know we can do that.”