LAKE CHARLES — In the process of leading Country Day to four of the school’s six boys basketball state titles, coach Mike McGuire has learned a thing or two. He’s seen more than a few sharp-shooting teams centered around guard play lose their rhythm in the wide-open confines of a big arena.
In those games, it’s rebounding, disciplined defense and calmness at the free-throw line that often prevail. Country Day dominated all three Wednesday, as the No. 2 Cajuns downed No. 3 Episcopal 52-37 in the Division III state semifinals at Burton Coliseum. With the win, Country Day (23-11) faces top-seeded Dunham in Saturday’s title game at 10 a.m.
“We weren’t locked in offensively and took shots we don’t normally take, which is uncharacteristic of us,” said Knights coach Chris Beckman. “A little bit was shot selection and missed early opportunities to make shots. Not sure if it was the arena or the atmosphere, but they weren’t going in.”
Overall, McGuire’s Cajuns and their 2-3 defensive scheme held the Knights to just 1 of 18 from beyond the arc while creating seven turnovers in the first quarter as Country Day stormed out to a 9-0 advantage in the first five minutes.
Though the Knights (27-9) would work their way back midway through the second, even taking a brief 18-16 lead, that early deficit put them on their heels, sometimes forcing shots while unable to break inside the zone.
On the other end, Episcopal couldn’t find an answer for Country Day junior Justin Ibieta and his ability to convert on the perimeter and bang in the paint. He scored his team’s final five points of the first half before knocking down a 3-pointer from the top of the key to start the third for a four-point lead. He finished with a game-high 20 points on 6-of-10 shooting from the field and 6 for 8 from the free throw line.
Ibieta also pulled down a game-high nine rebounds, headlining his team’s 36-22 advantage in the paint — including a 24-12 lead in the second half. That physicality particularly showed in the closing minutes of the third quarter. His team holding onto a 28-25 lead, Ibieta drew back-to-back fouls inside and knocked down all four of his free throws before hustling off a miss and hitting a transition 3-pointer that put Country Day up 10.
McGuire said his star’s rhythm and willingness to decide the game inside and at the line bled into the rest of the roster, magnifying the Cajuns' experience advantage with five seniors who played double-digit minutes. Compare that to Episcopal’s two in Austin Jemison and Brandan Garrido, the only two holdovers from last year’s team that made a trip to the title game. They led the Knights with 12 points apiece but shot a combined 1 for 10 from distance while Episcopal struggled with a 6-of-15 mark from the free-throw line.
“Free-throw shooting is a little contagious,” said McGuire of his team’s 13-of-18 mark from the charity stripe. “I think our guys wanted to get to the free-throw line. Some teams don’t.
“This team looks to get there. They want to close it out.”