ROCKY RIVER, Ohio — Jordan Duke’s office at Lutheran West might as well be Jayson Levis’ homeroom.
Levis, the Longhorns’ senior guard, repeatedly stopped by it Wednesday morning and afternoon to pester his coach about guarding Garfield Heights sophomore Marcus Johnson. Duke hadn’t decided on matchups after the previous day’s practice, but Levis’ persistence helped decide it.
As a result, Levis’ effort on the Mr. Basketball candidate helped Lutheran West hand Garfield Heights its first loss on the boys basketball season with a 54-50 win on the Longhorns’ home court.
“It starts with all of our coaches and preparation,” Levis said. “They watch film for hours. It shows in practice with all of our hard work.”
That practice typically leads to Duke and his staff deciding on game day who will draw what defensive assignment. Last week, junior forward Matt Meyer won the assignment of another Mr. Basketball candidate in Lutheran East’s Jesse McCulloch. The Longhorns won that game, 47-42, and Levis knew the process for how his coaches would decided who defends Johnson, a 6-foot-1 guard with a small height advantage on him.
Johnson, who made the All-Ohio first team last year as a freshman and averaged more than 24 points per game, still finished with a game-high 16 points. Levis made him earn all of it.
“He’s a competitor and he wants the challenge,” Duke said. “He doesn’t care about his offensive game or his defensive game. He cares about getting the win. It started with his intensity defensively, while we were able to execute the way we wanted to.”
Levis scored nine points, while fellow senior point guard Derek Fairley — another logical candidate for that assignment — scored 10 points with 11 rebounds and five assists. Fairley also had three steals, helping force Garfield Heights (19-1) into 14 turnovers while the Longhorns (17-2) committed 12 of them.
The Bulldogs entered as the No. 1-ranked team in the cleveland.com Top 25. They also owned Ohio’s No. 1 ranking in the latest Associated Press state poll for Division I. Lutheran West, ranked fourth in the area, owns the No. 1 spot in Division II for the state.
Both teams played like it with possessions as a premium. The hosts jumped out to an eight-point lead in the first quarter, which ended with Fairley’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer in the corner near Garfield Heights’ bench. Lutheran West’s lead later grew to 10 points, as Tino Yli-Junnila knocked down all three of his 3-pointers in the first half.
A 6-5 senior wing, Yli-Junnila finished with 12 points and his shots came at a welcomed time.
“I’ve been struggling shooting lately,” he said, “for the past, I don’t know, five or six games. It felt good to see them go in.”
His third 3-pointer of the first half gave Lutheran West a 26-16 lead, but the Bulldogs answered with a 13-4 run. That included the final seven points of the half, trimming the difference to just a point.
Senior forward Deandre Jones, a Kent State commit who played with Golden Flashes coach Rob Senderoff watching from the stands, helped complete the comeback with a pair of putbacks in the third quarter for a Garfield Heights lead. The visitors’ advantage grew to four points early in the fourth, but Lutheran West retook the lead for good on Dylan Bartchak’s 3-pointer from a corner near the Longhorns’ bench.
Both teams soon hit five team fouls, putting both in the double bonus. In the final minute, Fairley extended Lutheran West’s lead to four points with two free throws and Yli-Junnila provided the clinching shots with 7.7 seconds left on the clock.
“Everybody said we needed to take one,” Garfield Heights coach Sonny Johnson said. “It’s not bad getting one going into the tournament. Nobody wants to lose, but we lost to a good team, a well-coached team and a final four team.”
The closest one of Sonny Johnson’s teams previously came to an undefeated regular season, it won its first 19 games in 2011 like this one. That one got to the state final four for the first time in his coaching career.
He hopes this one can do the same.
Lutheran West has the same aspiration after reaching last year’s Division II state final and winning its first 14 games this season.
“I think we’re just clicking right about now,” Levis said. “We can definitely get better, but with these two wins, I think they’ll definitely help us in the long run and in the playoffs.”