AURORA — The line ran all the way through the lobby, out the door, and around the side of Regis Jesuit High School as fans eagerly awaited a matchup between the No. 1-ranked Regis Jesuit Raiders and the No. 2-ranked ThunderRidge Grizzlies Tuesday night. Fans lucky enough to find places to stand were witness to an entertaining and ultimately dominating performance by the Grizzlies as they defeated the Raiders 59-36.
“It was a great atmosphere. One versus two, we’ve had a lot of games like that. We’ve been very fortunate in that way,” ThunderRidge head coach Joe Ortiz said after the game. “I felt a calmness the whole time, because our kids were so focused.”
If Ortiz felt calm, he might have been the only one. The intensity was on display right away, and after one quarter Regis held a narrow 13-12 lead. Then, ThunderRidge kicked things into high gear.
Swarming the ball at the point of attack and with 6-foot-10 center senior Zach Pirog firmly planted in the lane at all times, the Grizzlies were impossible to score on in the second quarter. Well, not quite impossible - the Raiders did manage to put up two points on 1-13 shooting.
“We’ve got really good on-ball defenders that work really hard,” said Ortiz. “We’ve had multiple games this year when our opponents have been in single digits for a quarter.”
Not all of those opponents have the talent Regis does however, which is why it was a slight shock that, by halftime, ThunderRidge had rode their suffocating defense to a 23-15 lead.
Still, the Raiders had climbed to the top of the rankings for a reason, and their energy ramped up after halftime. They came out running after every ThunderRidge miss, and when they could, put on a full-court press in an effort to combat the Grizzlies’ size advantage.
It wasn’t enough to climb out of their second quarter hole however. Pirog continued to dominate the boards and was able to find the open man when the Raiders’ defense collapsed in the paint. Senior Grizzly Noah Szilagyi in particular took advantage of some good looks, draining four three-pointers to finish with 14 points.
“Zach’s no surprise at all. It’s tough to miss him, being six-ten out there,” Szilagyi said of his fellow senior. “He always has a huge impact. Even if he doesn’t have the best individual game, teams have to respect his size and his touch around the basket and his IQ. That opens up a lot of other weapons for us.”
Pirog would finish with a team-high 16 points and a number of emphatic blocks at the rim.
With their lead all the way up to eleven by the start of the fourth, it quickly became apparent, as the clock wound down, that there was no slowing down ThunderRidge. By the time Pirog finished off a ferocious dunk through contact mid-way into the final frame, the visiting ThunderRidge crowd was already claiming the title of “New No. 1.”
But despite the dominating performance, the Grizzlies were careful to keep things in perspective postgame.
“I’m not going to lie, coming in, we definitely wanted to go out and beat the No. 1 team,” Szilagyi said. “But it’s one game. We have a lot to do in March, and we’ll probably have to see these guys again the way they play.”
There’s still some work left to do before the potential for a rematch. The Grizzlies will try keep things going against Ponderosa at home this Friday, while the Raiders will try and bounce back at home against Chaparral, also this Friday.