ROCKY RIVER, Ohio – The Pirates battled both exhausting fatigue and an excellent foe on Saturday night at Rocky River Gymnasium. Shots wouldn’t fall, baskets were precious for each side, and even a 3-0 run was tough to come by. But a remarkable, improbable and near-unbelievable, waning-moments 23-foot jump shot by junior guard Tommy Ruma gave the Sons of Blackbeard and their fans what they desperately needed: a thunderbolt 3-0 run of the beyond-the-arc variety. And Ruma’s triple netted Rocky River a 45-43 win over Keystone.
Playing the back half of a schedule-maker’s bad joke (or character-building challenge?) and after a grueling, heart-wrenching 87-83 overtime loss to the frenetic-pace Bay Rockets on Friday, the River Five showed a resolve to dig down and defend like their collective hair was on fire. Actually, the call for resolve and the gut-check answer was on both sides, as the Keystone Wildcats had also toiled the night before, running their season mark to 7-3 with a win over Wellington. But this was a same Keystone program that, dating back to last season, had gone 20-4 over its previous two-dozen games. That stretch includes a 67-49 victory over Rocky River last January (Jan. 16, 2018).
The host Pirates certainly looked like an energy-depleted squad at the outset of Saturday’s non-conference tilt. With miss after miss on offense, the home five ceded an 8-0 lead to the Wildcats (7-4) over the opening three minutes-and-45 seconds of play. It was Tommy Ruma who broke the drought with a 3-pointer at the 4:15-mark of the first quarter. (Talk about bookends – Ruma would miss his next six attempts from distance until … well, we’ll get to that.)
The Wildcats led, 10-7, at the conclusion of first quarter. A pair of Cristain Dean free throws – part of a much-improved foul-line performance for the Pirates – lifted River to an 11-10 lead at 6:56 of the second. After a couple lead changes and with the help of a late-half triple by senior forward John Ruma, the Maroon & White worked their way to a 25-20 lead at the half. Key steals by Dean and fellow junior guard Connor O’Toole helped fuel the Pirates in taking control of the game in that second period.
The halftime session amounted to coaches Mike Murray and Jeff Holzhauer – whose programs have now tangled in four straight seasons with two wins a side – trying to cajole a bit more offense out of two tired-but-hustling teams embroiled in a defensive slug-fest. Halftime also amounted to an on-court salute of a slew of youth players on what marked Rocky River Travel Basketball Night at the Corner of Wagar & Detroit. And those young buccaneers – in full voice – would be heard from later.
The Wildcats got within two (29-27) at the 4:13-mark of the third, but nifty River passing and another late-quarter trey by John Ruma helped the Pirates rebuild a two-score cushion (40-34) by the end of the period.
A Pirate offense already in the slow lane came to a parked stand-still in the fourth. The first six minutes-and-52 seconds of the fourth quarter saw three baskets scored. All three were registered by the visitors, netting a 40-40 tie.
A Cristain Dean bucket at 1:02 put Rocky River back in the lead, 42-40. Keystone answered when junior guard Ethan Sokolowski buried a dagger three from the right corner at the 40-second mark. The lead swung back to the Wildcats (43-42), followed by an ensuing exchange of timeouts and scoreless possessions. All the while the volume provided by Keystone and River fans – and the aforementioned young fans in attendance – reached a fever pitch.
An then it was Tommy Ruma, he of the 1-of-7 distance mark on the night, taking a pass up top, some 25 feet from the hoop – surrounded, both by a pulsing decibel level in a close gym and by the Wildcat defense.
Stepping into a 23-foot 3-pointer, Ruma stood (or rather, jumped) and delivered.
Not just a dagger. But a broad sweep of a hefty Pirate sword and the home side was back in the lead: 45-43, with seven seconds showing on the scoreboard in a now-delirious Rocky River Gymnasium.
With fouls to give and a resilient River five showing no quarter, the Pirates defended the final seven ticks without yielding a shot.
Ruma’s trey – his second of the night after more than a few misfires – held. The Pirates held. Impressive stuff. The junior marksman not only had a hand in his face when he let loose the shot. He had a face in his face — Wildcat defender draped on him as if he were an extension of the home-white River uniform.
The prospect of making the shot was improbable. The result was impeccable.
CANNON FIRE …
STAT SHEET: Keystone’s Sean Saterlee led all scorers with 13 points in Saturday’s defensive struggle. Luke Coyne and Cristain Dean each tallied 12 for Rocky River. The Ruma boys combined to add 14 points (Tommy eight, John six). Coyne and Dean also led River in rebounding, with seven and six boards, respectively. … The Pirates shot 38.1 percent (16-of-42) from the floor and 22.2 percent (4-of-18) from 3-point-land. The Wildcats were credited with a 55.9-percent (19-of-34) performance from the floor. They went 3-of-12 (25 percent) from beyond the arc.
FREE SPACE: Rocky River went 9-of-11 (81.8 percent) at the free-throw line, improving dramatically upon what was a shaky (and costly) 14-of-28 (50 percent) in Friday’s game at Bay. The Pirates are shooting 59.4 percent (79-of-133) this season on their uncontested 15-footers. … The 43 points yielded by the Rocky River defense marked a season best. The 2018-19 Pirates have allowed just 55.3 points per game, a 4-1/2-point improvement over last year’s defensive mark.
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