By Josh Shreckengost
West Shamokin senior forward Ezeck Olinger (22) hits a mid-range jumper in the third quarter of the Wolves' 61-46 come-from-behind win over Homer-Center on Tuesday night. Olinger had 15 points and had a strong game defensively for West Shamokin, which raised its 2021 record to 4-0.
Rural Valley, Pa. — West Shamokin's boys varsity basketball team had yet to be tested early on in the 2021 campaign, but that's not to say head coach Judd McCullough wasn't expecting it.
"I told the guys in the locker room, when you start out [undefeated] the way we have, there's going to be a lot of respect, but you're also going to have a target on your back," McCullough said. "Homer-Center is a great program and they bring back a lot. The Sardone kid is a beast and they have some good pieces. We knew going in at some point in time that we were going to have one of those games where things weren't going our way and I was proud of the way we responded."
Though they had cruised to a 3-0 record with all three of those wins featuring the new running clock mercy rule in the second half, McCullough's Wolves fell behind big early to Homer-Center in Tuesday night's Heritage Conference contest at the Wolves' Den. The Wildcats overwhelmed the Wolves with physicality, usually in the form of senior forward Ryan Sardone. The 6-5, 200-pound senior wreaked havoc in the paint and helped Homer-Center jump out to a stunning 18-5 lead at the end of the first quarter. Sardone scored 11 points in the frame and was a terror on the boards for the Wildcats, who pounded the ball inside as West Shamokin settled for long three-point attempts.
Down by as many as 15 early in the second quarter, McCullough changed the way his team attacked the Wildcats' 2-3 zone. Instead of moving the ball around the perimeter and trying to find an open look from beyond the arc, the Wolves moved point guard Bo Swartz into the middle and allowed him to distribute. It was this adjustment which allowed the Wolves to trim the deficit to eight points at the half.
After the break, the Wolves came out with a renewed intensity and began to force the Wildcats into costly turnovers. West Shamokin pressured the ball the whole way up the court for the duration of the period and outscored Homer-Center, 20-9 in the frame. Trevor Smulik, Ezeck Olinger and Jack McCullough each had five points in the period and Swartz again proved vital handing out assists from his position in the paint.
"We have the talent and the skill level to come back," McCullough said. "We've shown the firepower to be able to do it and it really started on the defensive end when we started to apply more ball pressure. I think that was a turning point in the game and we rattled them a bit. We really got after them and played better defense which led to better offense."
Olinger played a ferocious game against Sardone and helped to limit the Homer-Center big man to just four points in the second half after Sardone dropped in 17 in the first 16 minutes of play. Olinger also made his presence felt on the offensive end as he was the recipient of several of Swartz's assists on the baseline. Olinger finished at the hooped and flashed a nice mid-range jumper on a couple of occasions and finished with 15 points in the game. Olinger also grabbed three rebounds and added two steals while also deflecting several Wildcats' passes which ultimately ended in turnovers.
"Ezeck was a warrior tonight, I thought it was a great physical matchup inside," McCullough said. "I was very impressed with the effort we got out of Ezeck."
Up 43-40 heading into the fourth quarter, the Wolves continued to put the hammer down and took control of the game as the outscored the Wildcats, 18-6. Smulik had eight of his game-high 25 points in the period and also grabbed several key rebounds down the stretch. The junior swingman chalked up a double-double with 10 rebounds and also added three assists and three steals. Jack McCullough finished with 14 points and two rebounds, two assists and two steals. Swartz had a game-high 10 assists to go along with his four rebounds and two steals and Eric Spencer chipped in with five points and seven boards.
All told, it was solid comeback effort by a team on the rise and McCullough was happy with how his team responded to its first taste of adversity in 2021.
"I was interested to see how we would respond [to adversity] because you knew it was coming, you can't blow every team out," McCullough said. "Teams are too good. I was excited to see us pass that test tonight because it gives us the confidence that we can win in a variety of different ways."
To watch a complete re-broadcast of West Shamokin's 61-45 win over Homer-Center, please click the link below: