Panthers, Cavs meet in meaningful matchup
A lot of people might be surprised Piedmont High has a 13-1 record in boys basketball, but Cuthbertson coach Mike Helms isn’t one of them.
Helms still has vivid memories of Feb. 10, 2012, when his Cavaliers finished an undefeated conference season by escaping Unionville with a 72-71 win over the Panthers.
“They outplayed us that night and I said then the wrong team won,” said Helms, whose Cavs went 31-2 last year and lost in the 2A state finals. “Now they’ve had another year of growth and they’re playing with confidence. I think this is the best Piedmont team I’ve ever coached against.”
Piedmont hosts Cuthbertson (15-1 record) tonight with first place in the Rocky River Conference on the line. The Cavs enter the game 6-0 in the league, a half-game ahead of Piedmont (5-0).
First-year coach Rudi Heath has changed the culture of the program, and the Panthers are enjoying unprecedented success.
A win tonight would be one of the biggest in school history, but Heath isn’t looking backward.
“In high school you can’t always look at history and say this is how it’s going to be,” Heath said. “We have a golden opportunity this year that they didn’t have last year and might not have next year. We hope to take advantage of it.
“For us this is the measuring stick. If we beat them, we’re good enough to play for the whole thing. If we don’t, we get to see what our weaknesses are and what we have to work on. We’re excited about the opportunity and can’t wait for it to get here.”
Helms was expecting Piedmont to build on last year’s 11-14 record. But he didn’t realize the Panthers were capable of beating Forest Hills on the road in overtime on a Tuesday night, then traveling to Monroe and defeating the Redhawks the next night.
“When they beat Forest Hills and Monroe on back-to-back nights that was all I needed to know,” Helms said. “Those are really tough places to play. I think Piedmont has a very good team. When you have two teams with one loss playing each other this time of year, it gets your attention. I know they have our guys’ attention. I think Rudi is an outstanding coach and we have a lot of respect for what they’re doing over there.”
What Piedmont does better than most teams is score in the paint.
The Panthers run their offense through 6-5 senior forward Brady Meggs, a four-year starter who is averaging 17.2 points and 7.2 rebounds while shooting 56.8 percent from the field. They also feed 6-6 sophomore center Cameron Tripp, who averages 11.6 points and 9.4 rebounds.
Cuthbertson is more perimeter oriented, led by all-state point guard Shelton Mitchell.
“I believe the key stat for us is going to be how many offensive rebounds Piedmont gets,” Helms said. “Meggs and Tripp go to the boards so hard. We have to do a good job of rebounding the ball or we’re in trouble.”
Heath said he realized early on after taking the job last summer that “we had the pieces to be pretty doggone good.”
The perimeter players bought in to the concept of playing through the post, and the wins started piling up.
“A lot of teams are guard oriented because that’s the kind of kids they have,” Heath said. “They might have one inside player, and a lot of them have none. We have two good inside players and it’s pretty nice to go through Brady and Cameron.”
Heath said the most pleasant surprise has been the composure of his guards in tight games.
Senior point guard Qualen Blakeney is averaging 11.8 points, and has twice as many assists (65) as turnovers (37).
“Qualen is playing really well,” Helms said. “He’s shooting well and playing well. He wants the ball in his hands and he’s making good decisions with it.”
Heath puts the offense in Blakeney’s hands, with the understanding that the ball must go inside early and often.
“Qualen has the reins of the team,” Heath said. “He’s calling the shots out there. When he sees it we definitely want him to go. He’s confident and he’s a good shooter. I’m amazed at how well we shoot the ball and he’s one of the reasons. But he knows who needs to get the ball first, and he knows that opens up the floor for everybody else.”
The Cavaliers will try to offset Piedmont’s post presence with their perimeter play.
Mitchell is averaging a county-high 22.6 points, and senior wing Isiah Cureton scores 12.5 ppg. Five other Cavaliers average more than six points.
“They have a real balanced team,” Heath said of the Cavs. “Obviously Mitchell is a great player, but they have other guys, too. They’ve been in a lot of big games and I’m sure they’ll be ready.”
Helms said Mitchell has responded well since making his college choice. Mitchell scored a career-high 38 in last week’s home win over Forest Hills.
I think he was wearing down from the recruiting process,” Helms said. “He feels good about his decision and wanted to be done with it so he could go back to enjoying the game. His Mom says he’s like a different kid at home. He’s playing freer now because he doesn’t have to worry about it anymore.”
The winner of tonight’s game will be the last unbeaten in the Rocky River Conference, but neither coach wants to put too much emphasis on one game.
“It’s not the end of the world for whichever team loses,” Helms said. “The league is much improved this year, and it’s going to help all of us in the playoffs.”
Heath knows what this meeting means to the conference standings, but he’s thinking longer term and doesn’t want his players to feel pressure.
“I really see it as a test to see where we’re at,” he said. “I’m not surprised by how we’ve played, but I have been a little surprised with how well we’ve reacted when we’re challenged because these kids haven’t been in these situations before. I knew we had a chance to be good, but how good would be decided by how we react to adversity. ... We definitely want to win this game, but it’s not going to make or break our season win or lose.”