Southwest High School started its boys basketball season with a bang Thursday, beating Fridley 72-59 in a non-conference game on the road.
Both teams were trying to shake off their disappointing seasons last year, testing each other with fast-paced, aggressive play that was full of steals and blocked shots, missteps and missed baskets. But Southwest built an early lead and dominated throughout, leading by as many as 20 points in the second half.
The first action in Southwest's season occurred at the foul line, with senior forward Rodney Pierce-Taylor sinking one of two free throws after the referees called a technical foul on Fridley for dunking the ball during warmups.
That free throw turned out to be the point that made Pierce-Tyler the game's leading scorer with 22 points. Southwest's Matt St. Anthony, another senior forward, was close behind at 21.
But Southwest coach Tom Weko had his eye on the other end of the court. "What we've been preaching is defense, and pushing the ball in transition," Weko said. "We saw that for about three-quarters of the game."
That's when his players started to tire and Weko became a more visible—and vocal—presence at courtside. Fridley's Graig Weber—a senior center and an emotional presence on the court who led the Tigers's scoring with 13 points—sunk two three-point shots in a row to narrow the margin to 11. But the Lakers didn't let their lead disappear.
Protecting a big lead "is a situation we haven't been used to," said Weko, who seemed pleased with his team's performance "They did nice. They did not totally collapse," he said with a smile.
Another difference from last season was having a steady group of older players. "It's nice to have seniors who have played together," Weko said, praising the athleticism of Pierce-Tyler, who transferred to Southwest this year.
Opening the season with a non-conference game against Fridley was an effort, in the coach's words, to "tone down the schedule." Southwest hosts two more non-conference opponents next week: Robbinsdale Armstrong on Dec. 7 and East Ridge on Dec. 9. "Next week will be a lot tougher," Weko said.
A few dozen Southwest fans made the half-hour trek to Fridley High School for the non-conference season opener, with about 20 kids seated in the visiting-student section.
On the other side of Fridley's gym, Claudia Risnes sought back-support in the last bleacher row, tallying baskets on her game program. She said she was thrilled to see her grandson, Southwest sophomore guard Marquis Graves, come off the bench for some playing time in the second half.
A retired high-school teacher and curriculum planner in the Anoka-Hennepin, Minnetonka and Stillwater school districts, Risnes said she still loves high school students: "What better way to spend winter evenings than watching high school basketball?"