CLINTON — The spark came from senior center Rob Zirlis, who got the ball in the post, peeled off his Valley Regional defender with a drop step and threw down an uncontested dunk for Morgan’s first bucket Saturday.
It tied the game at 2 and didn’t seem like a big deal at the time, but the Huskies knew otherwise.
“Rob’s dunk put in perspective how we wanted to set the tone,” junior guard Drew Nye said. “Our energy was great. After that, we took off.”
With Valley paying particular attention to the 6-foot-6 Zirlis in the middle, the Huskies had space on the perimeter to fire away and unleashed a 3-point attack that produced six treys in the first quarter alone and 12 in all in their 85-53 Shoreline Conference rout of the Warriors.
Morgan’s offensive versatility — in the middle, on the perimeter and in transition — was on full display as the conference favorite raised its record to 4-0.
Senior Jason Cohen, who finished with 18 points, drilled three 3-pointers in the opening eight minutes as Morgan raced out to leads of 13-4 and 22-10. Nye swished two and senior Zach Johnson one. Johnson scored a game-high 19 points and Zirlis had 17 as Morgan dealt Valley its first defeat in four games.
“I felt like I got a fair share of touches, but we were lights out from three,” said Zirlis. “I felt that’s because they collapsed on me. We have shooters on the floor and off the bench. With our starting five, anyone can hit a three and anyone off our bench can hit a three.”
Saagar Patel led Valley with 14 points and James Marsden finished with 11. Sophomore Jeremy Arnum, their top scorer and defender, missed the final 22 minutes after injuring his right wrist — a loss that this young but fierce Valley team, which graduated nine seniors last season, could not overcome.
Both teams were unable to practice Thursday and Friday because of weather cancellations. Morgan coach Frank Rossi said Wednesday’s practice became a cram session of preparation for the Warriors’ pressure defense.
“We knew we had the size advantage and knew they might pack in on Robbie,” Rossi said. “We have shooters and the guys were ready when they gave us open looks. That was our goal, to force them to adjust, and I think as the game progressed they had to come out and defend the perimeter a little better, and that got us more inside penetration to Robbie.”
Like his teammates, Johnson flashed some serious range from three and stayed hot into the second quarter. His 3-pointer on Morgan’s first possession staked the Huskies to a 25-10 advantage.
Arnum made two free throws 20 seconds later before disaster struck on the Warriors’ next possession. He missed in an attempt to lay the ball in on the right side, unable to break his fall, his wrist bore the brunt of the impact. Arnum, who had eight points at the time, spent the remainder of the game icing the injury.
Valley coach Kevin Woods said Arnum, who suffered a similar injury two years ago, will get X-rays.
“He landed on it badly and we’re hoping he’s OK,” said Woods. “We lost a lot with Jeremy. He accounts for a lot of our inside points, too.”
The Warriors did not fold, though. Arnum was fouled on the play, and Marcus SantaMaria made both free throws in his stead. Valley kept its deficit manageable and actually cut it to 10 when Marsden hit a 3-pointer from the wing with 38.6 seconds left.
Zirlis put back his offensive rebound with 1.1 seconds on the clock to give Morgan a 40-28 lead at the break.
“Realistically we were right there at the half,” Woods said. “We just didn’t finish and we left a lot of points on the board. We settled for a lot of threes, which is great if they’re going in, but they weren’t going in tonight. And we’re better at attacking than we showed tonight, even without Jeremy. It’s just something the next couple of games that we’re going to have to figure it out.”
Without Arnum, Valley looked outnumbered. Zirlis scored five points in the first 45 seconds of the third quarter and the Huskies began to get points in transition. A three-point play by Johnson gave the Huskies a 14-point lead at 48-34 and opened it up to 19 on a Johnson layup.
“In the second half the kids really got into the rhythm of the game and were getting the ball inside and outside,” Rossi said.
Morgan led 58-41 at the end of the third and scored the first 12 points of the fourth quarter to put it away.
“With past history, Valley is an opponent we marked on our calendars for sure,” Nye said. “We felt we’ve got to play like Valley physically, and I thought we executed very well.”
With one-third of the regular season and one of the Shoreline’s toughest opponents in the books, Rossi seemed content with the progress the Huskies are making.
“Valley is a championship program with a championship culture. Those kids aren’t going to back down from anybody and that’s the point we’re trying to make,” Rossi said. “A lot of people are giving us credit as the favorite in the league and what not, and we keep stressing we need to earn that. Today was a good measure of that. We put our best foot forward and there’s still room for improvement, but we did a lot of good things today.”