Opponents with similar talent are going to have to put together a full 32-minute game to defeat the Solon boys basketball team this season.
Returning on the heels of an 18-7 Division I district runner-up campaign, the Comet cagers rode some short, but destructive, runs to turn an otherwise competitive game into an 85-67 victory during their season opener Saturday night at Chardon.
Although the host Hilltoppers (0-2) put on a poor shooting display, including four-of-20 from long range, they neutralized that performance by winning the battle on the boards, 42-35, behind 6-foot-5 senior Brady Toth’s 13 rebounds and 6-foot-4 junior Nathanael Sulka’s seven rebounds.
Meanwhile, the Comets (1-0) overcame their struggles on the glass by enacting their full-court press to win the turnover battle, 19-8, and to finish plus-seven in shot attempts from the field, including a 12-of-26 clip from deep. Solon 6-foot-4 junior Sam Marbury had the hot hands with five 3-pointers.
But the final score came down to a few short spurts for the Solon boys, including an 11-2 run to end the first quarter and a 16-5 run in the heart of the third quarter.
“I think, when we press, we’re just looking for those bursts in a game where we can go on those 6-0 or 8-0 runs,” Solon seventh-year head coach Tony DeCesare said. “And to have one right at the end of the first quarter, you know, it was a back-and-forth quarter, but when you’re up, 25-16, at the end of it, it doesn’t feel like that. It feels like you’re in control. But it was really about a one-minute spurt that change all that.”
Solon and Chardon were tied at 14 before that one-minute spurt allowed the Comets to end the frame on that 11-2 run.
Then, after Solon commanded a 42-31 lead at intermission, the Hilltoppers opened the third quarter on a 5-0 run to cut their deficit to six, but Solon’s full-court press responded on a 16-5 momentum swing to reclaim a double-digit command.
“That’s what you’re hoping for – three, four, five of those one-minute spurts where you can make a run to win a basketball game,” DeCesare said. “And that’s what it was; other than a few spurts, they played us really even. It was good for our guys to be in a game like that and certainly to come out with a win. It’s always nice in your opener.”
A guard-oriented program since DeCesare took the reins in 2014 – Solon’s tallest starters in the past seven years include 6-foot-4 Daryl Johnson, a 2016 graduate, 6-foot-4 Nick Close, a 2019 graduate, and current 6-foot-4 junior Sam Marbury – the Comets have overcome their height disadvantages in previous seasons by taking full advantage of their athletic abilities in the full court.
Three seasons ago, when Solon started three 6-foot guards, the Comets’ up-tempo play led them all the way to the Division I state title game during a 27-2 campaign. They averaged 85.1 points per game in the regular season.
After graduating four starters in 2019, the Comets got a little bit away from their 94-foot defense last season.
But with premier defenders like 6-foot senior Marcus Steele and 5-foot-11 sophomore Rayquon Thompson in the starting lineup and a supporting cast that can help carry the load of bringing 32 minutes of pressure, the Comets are back after it this year.
“They both did a great job of pressuring the basketball, speeding up Chardon’s guards and leading to turnovers,” DeCesare said of Steele and Thompson. “I think they can add that dimension to our team that we didn’t have last year. We didn’t press much at all. Last year was a much slower tempo and slower game. So, it’s nice to go back to this style, and I think both of those guys are going to be key in our pressure.”
Offensively, Steele and Thompson both capitalized off those Hilltopper turnovers, especially early on. Steele scored 12 of his 19 points in the first half, while Thompson scored 11 of his 16 points in the first half, including a pair of treys.
Marbury, meanwhile, led the scoring column with 25 points, 15 coming in the second half. Not to mention, he had five blocks and a slam dunk.
“Getting five blocks, that’s a new presence for us,” DeCesare said. “We’ve been so small for so long that, to now have a guy that can take care of some of our mistakes on the defensive end, it was good to see. So, Sam’s added that piece to his game.”
While Marbury kept the weak stuff away from the rim, Steele also has some major ups with his 36-inch vertical jump.
Joining Marbury and Steele as a returning starter, 6-foot-2 senior Jimmie Williams also threw down a dunk against Chardon to put some exclamation on his nine points and eight boards. And 6-foot senior Pat McQuaide rounded out the Comets’ starting unit with seven points and eight boards.
Williams and McQuaide showed their strength on the glass, but one of the weaknesses Chardon exposed was Solon’s rebounding efforts as a team.
“I think they ended up rebounding 40 percent of their misses, which we all know is too high of a number for us to still be able to win basketball games,” DeCesare said. “It wasn’t like our guys weren’t battling. We had some guys that did great work on the glass offensively and defensively. But I think it points out how important it’ll be for all five of our guys to make that an emphasis when the shot goes up.”
Solon’s first two guys off the bench in the early season will be 6-foot senior Noah Obert, a varsity veteran from last season, and 6-foot sophomore Caleb Walker. Obert had three points and five rebounds against Chardon and will continue to play starter’s minutes, DeCesare said.
While the Hilltoppers had a trio of double-digit scorers on Saturday, with Sulka dropping 25 points, Brady hitting 14 points and junior Cody Palovich collecting 11 points, coach DeCesare said he was proud of the way his own offensive threats played with a lead in the second half.
“We continued to do the things offensively that made us successful,” DeCesare said. “Sometimes when you get a lead, guys start kind of playing more individually. They sort of look at it as this is our chance to do our own thing. But we continued to move the ball and share the ball and get good looks.
“We have a number of guys that are all capable of scoring 20 points or more a night – Sam, Marcus, Rayquon all had a lot of buckets, and you have Jimmie Williams. Those are all guys that, if they wanted to play selfishly, could score a lot of points, but they’ve bought into the idea of let’s get the best shot at the best time for each possession.”
Up next, Solon is scheduled to play road games against Warrensville Heights at 7 p.m. Dec. 28 and against Green at 7 p.m. Dec. 30.
Green was a Division I district runner-up last season, while Warrensville Heights was in the Division III regional finals when its playoff run got shut down by concerns from COVID-19.