When Marcus Balano tumbled to the floor in serious pain, Owen Dexter-Meldrum knew he needed to step up.
The Thacher senior did that and then some Wednesday night, as the Toads were able to silence the crowd at Cate School on their way to a 63-44 win over their Frontier League rivals.
Balano was driving to the rim with 3:04 left in the second quarter when he went down and immediately grabbed his left knee. The junior co-captain remained on the ground, hands over his eyes, for several minutes as the Cate trainer tried to find the source of the pain. Balano was eventually escorted off the floor and returned in the second half on crutches. Lucky for him, the Toads were able to push their lead up to 22 points in the second half as they cruised to victory.
“They were rallying all night,” Balano said after the game. “I went down and the intensity stayed up. Just seeing from the sideline was a different viewpoint that I’ve never had before, so these guys played the best I’ve seen them play all season.”
While he was in unfamiliar territory, Balano said he tried to encourage his teammates and keep them upbeat.
“We’ve just got to stick to the game plan,” he said. “If I go down, it’s the next man up. It’s just kind of the culture we have here.”
For Thacher (13-4, 5-0 in Frontier League), it was Dexter-Meldrum’s chance to grab the baton and run with it. The senior finished with 11 points, including nine in the second half, to help the Toads earn the season sweep over Cate.
“We’re all trying to rally for him, we love Marcus,” Dexter-Meldrum said. “He runs our offense, so everyone was trying to step up and do a little bit more. Motivate, win for him and now we can focus on getting him better and hoping that he can make it back by the end of the season.”
“We always try to win with defense and that was kind of the program today. Come in, do what we do on defense and try to slow them down and the offense will come.”
Thacher was coming off a 58-51 loss on Saturday to Beacon Hill. Dexter-Meldrum said the team wasn’t satisfied with their last outing and wanted to reassert themselves in league play.
“We want to carry this momentum through the rest of the league and hopefully the playoffs” he said.
The Toads came out strong and, following a Skyler Nova corner 3-pointer, the road team took an 11-6 lead with 2:41 left in the first quarter. Nova connected again from 3-point range about a minute later, helping Thacher to a 14-8 first quarter lead.
Nkemka Chukwumerije hit a fade-away jumper with 6:25 left in the second quarter to cut the deficit to 15-10, and it appeared that Cate was about to go on a scoring run to cut into the Thacher lead. Chukwumerije continued to stay aggressive and drew multiple fouls throughout the second period, but was unable to take advantage from the free-throw line and missed all six attempts.
Despite losing Balano, the Toads outscored the Rams 12-5 in the second quarter.
After opening up a 13-point lead at the half, Thacher continued its solid play in the third. Nova scored on a pair of fast break layups early in the period and a 3-pointer by Dexter-Meldrum gave the Toads a 35-20 lead with 4:12 left in the third. Thacher’s Conor Kelly converted a pair of layups and Nova continued his hot shooting to balloon the lead to 22 before the Rams fought back.
Ethan Ng hit three of his four free-throw attempts before Tyler Tom connected from downtown with 50 seconds left in the third, giving Cate its first 3-pointer of the night and cutting the deficit to 47-28. They had missed their first 18 attempts from distance. Tyler Vondriska hit a three of his own to give the Toads a 50-28 lead heading to the fourth.
Ng’s 3-pointer with 4:45 left cut the Rams lead to 51-36, but Kelly and the Toads refused to let up. The sophomore forward hit four of his six free throws and made a floater in the lane in the fourth quarter, as he finished with 12 points. Dexter-Meldrum went a perfect four of four at the line in the final period to finish with 12, while Nova had a game-high 19 points.
For Cate (13-4, 4-2 in Frontier League), Ng was the lone scorer in double figures, finishing with 13 points. Chukwumerije had eight points.
“That was uncharacteristic. Honestly I’m a little bit embarrassed,” said Cate coach Andy Gil after the game. “This is not Cate basketball and Thacher did everything that we ask (our guys) to do in daily practices. Play harder, take the charge, get the rebound.
Today, they were the better team. We didn’t bring the effort, we didn’t bring the heart today and Thacher knows that this game meant a lot to both of us, so they definitely came ready to play and they had a great game plan.”
With the loss, Cate is slated to finish in second place in the Frontier League for the fourth year in a row. Despite the loss, however, the Rams entered the game ranked No. 10 in CIF-SS Division 4A and hope to get a good draw for the playoffs.
“We still have a task at hand,” Gil said. “We still have two games next week that mean a lot, so we’re going to play hard and finish it through.
“My job is to try and get 32 minutes out of these guys and unfortunately I got like five out of them, and that’s not going to win a game.”
Prior to Wednesday’s game, both teams observed a 24-second moment of silence in honor of the late Kobe Bryant. Senior Khadim Pouye addressed the crowd and explained that Bryant was a huge motivation for him and the play of the late Lakers legend is what inspired him to start playing basketball. A purple Bryant jersey was then placed on a chair on the Rams bench for the duration of the contest.