The answer was no.
The University School Preppers’ basketball team had just trimmed Hawken’s lead to 55-54 after sophomore guard Alec Congdon hit a 3-pointer from the left corner in the fourth period last Saturday night.
Hawks’ junior guard Taj Caver responded by burying a straightaway 3-pointer from the top of the key pushing the lead to 58-54.
According to the 5-foot-8 guard, the Hawks were too close to lose.
“We just stayed together,” he said. “It is a testament to our team and what we do. We stick together and do not break apart and in that moment, we banded together and were like ‘We are not letting this go. We are this far and we are winning this game.’”
The Hawks clung to a one-possession lead for a few minutes but finished off their prep school rivals and won 69-61 at the Red Gym in Chester.
The victory marked the end of a four-year losing streak against University School.
“More than anything the whole night was fun,” said Hawken Coach Josh Nugent. “It was a big night and for our guys to step up in this environment and atmosphere, they wanted it bad. This is one of those ones that you want for your players really bad and to see them have this opportunity and finish it was a lot of fun.”
After four consecutive seasons of being under the Preppers’ thumb, Hawken (9-7, 7-3) hopes to change that dynamic.
“It is unbelievable,” said Caver. “I have been here my whole life and started at Hawken in pre-k. University School is our biggest rival every single year. They used to give us the works and this was a long time coming and this is a testament to how far we have come as a program the last couple of years. This was a team that made a lot of noise the past four years so this victory meant we are here now.”
The Hawks were playing on the second night of a back-to-back, after beating Chagrin Valley Conference rival Lakeside on Jan. 20 while the Preppers (9-6) were the more-rested team.
Usually a fast-paced team, University School hoped to catch the Hawks off guard by pushing the pace from the opening tip.
As fast as the Preppers were playing, Hawken could play even faster.
“To Hawken’s credit, our pressure just did not bother them,” said University School Coach Sean McDonnell. “Although we got the tempo of the game going, our pressure was better for Hawken than it was for us and that is a bit of a concern.”
The Preppers went on a 7-3 run to tie the game at 10-10 in the first period, but Hawken then unleashed an 11-3 surge to take an 8-point lead into the second period.
Caver sparked the Hawks’ offense in the first quarter by scoring nine points and shot four-of-six from the floor.
“When things are tough Taj is absolutely someone who can get it going for us,” said Nugent. “This was such a big game for him because he has a really good friend on the other side who also had a big game. I was really happy for Taj.”
It was a clash of big bodies in the paint with University School’s senior forward Ethan Nowak matching up against Hawks’ junior forward David Dettelbach.
Despite the 6-foot-6 Nowak holding a slight size advantage against the 6-foot-5 Dettelbach, the Hawks’ big man dominated his match-up in the first half and helped seal off the paint.
“I think we did an unbelievable job in the first half keeping them out of the paint as best we could,” said the four-year Hawken coach. “University School was just relentless in their attack to get in there.”
The Preppers tried cutting into the lead by relying on their outside shooting but shot just two-of-seven from beyond the arc.
“We just could not get anything going,” remarked the seven-year University School coach. “When we got offensive rebounds, we could not convert them, we were not converting off of our drives. Hawken was really physical and we could not get anything going in the paint. We shoot a lot of 3-pointers but we do not want to rely on just being a 3-point shooting team.”
The teams traded baskets in the second quarter and Hawken pushed its lead to double digits late in the period but the Preppers trimmed it back to single digits right before halftime.
University School finally started converting some drives into the paint in the third quarter and junior guard Justin Belcher ignited his team’s offense by scoring 13 points, cutting the lead to only 4 points at the end of the period.
“Justin is a really special player,” McDonnell said. “Everybody would love to have him and we are really fortunate that we do.”
The Preppers kept inching closer until they trailed by only point after Congdon’s corner 3-pointer.
Even though Caver drilled a 3-pointer to make it a two-possession game, University School continued hanging around and trailed 60-59 with 3:00 left in regulation.
According to Nugent, his team understood that if the Preppers took the lead they would not relinquish it.
The Hawks then outscored University School by a 9-2 margin in final minutes and allowed only two free throws.
“We just dug in on Saturday night,” he said. “We got the stops we needed to get and secured rebounds and made free throws. The stuff that you have to do at the end of the game to come out on top, we did all of those things.”
Following a road contest against Chagrin Valley Conference foe Orange on Tuesday night, Hawken will travel to Geneva for another conference duel at 7 p.m. on Friday.
Meanwhile, the Preppers will hit the road to take on Villa Angela-St. Joseph at 7 p.m. on Friday in Cleveland, then head to Fairview Park at 7 p.m. on Saturday.