BELLAIRE - After winning only three games last season, Bellaire head coach J.R. Battista was basically looking for a solid performance to start this season Friday night across the street at St. John Central.
He got that and more ... much more.
Michael Neal poured in a game-high 24 points, including a 10-of-10 effort from the free-throw line, as the Big Reds overwhelmed the Irish, 72-49, in a mutual boys' basketball lidlifter before a standing-room-only crowd.
BELLAIRE’S Tyler Ramsay (2) shoots over top of St. John Central’s Jonathon Bossell (31) Friday night.
''It's an opener and we'll always take a win,'' a smiling Battista said. ''A win's a win. Last year we only had three, so we'll take all of them we can get.''
Battista has a plethora of players back from last year's squad so he was anxious to see the progress that has been made. So far, he's pleased.
''I was just trying to see where we're at,'' he said. ''We played fairly well in some of our scrimmages. We played well in spurts (Friday) and missed some easy shots at times.
''We'll get back at it Sunday and try to get better. That's all you can do.''
The Big Reds led from start to finish, jumping out 7-2 and later 13-4 before surging to a 24-11 lead after the first quarter.
''Bellaire is too big and too athletic for us to make any mistakes,'' St. John head coach Kevin Lahna said. ''We turned the ball over quite a few times and we have to put the ball in the hoop, too.''
Garrett Holubeck dropped in a pair of free throws with 3:17 left in the first quarter to bring the Irish to within five at 13-8. But from there, the Big Reds kicked things into high gear, going on an 11-3 run to end the period.
Nine of those points came from the free-throw line. In fact, the officials' whistles were sounding quite a bit. Both teams combined to shoot 65 free throws.
''They're good kids that will play as hard as they possibly can,'' Battista said of his team. ''Sometimes, they'll get overly-anxious and that leads to fouling. There was too much of that.''
There was no shortage of effort, as one would expect when the two Guernsey Street schools get together.
''That's not the same Bellaire team we played last year,'' Lahna noted.
Neal canned a 3-pointer then hit a pair of free throws to stretch Bellaire's lead to 35-18 with 4:40 left in the first half.
Moments later, the Big Reds went on a 9-0 run keyed by four points from Tyler Ramsay, who finished with 17 points.
A jumper by St. John freshman point guard Guy Pagano stopped the spurt and made the score 46-23 at the break.
Pagano missed part of the preseason with an injury, but showed plenty of promise with his performance Friday, leading the Irish with 23 points.
''He played a nice game, but he'll make freshman mistakes,'' Lahna said. ''He played all summer, but it's a different game when you get to the varsity level. He'll be fine.''
Lahna also noted Malik Ford wasn't 100 percent after missing almost a week with a high ankle sprain.
''We are still learning to gel, too,'' Lahna noted. ''I see a lot of good things to come. I don't know if we'll see a team bigger than them.
''We didn't do the things that St. John had to do to beat Bellaire.''
Wyatt Back's jumper midway through the third gave Bellaire it's largest lead, 60-26. From there, though, St. John finished on a 23-12 run.
''We didn't end up on the right side of the board,'' Lahna said, ''but we we have a lot of good things to build on.''
Thorp can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Bellaire 72, St. John 49
B - Steele 2 1-2 5; Wiggins 1 0-0 3; Ramsay 6 5-12 17; Kimbro 0 0-0 0; Callarik 0 0-0 0; Westlake 1 0-0 2; Back 2 0-0 5; Pickens 0 0-0 0; Ky.Hess 1 0-0 3; Kovalyk 0 0-0 0; Hall 0 0-0 0; Ke.Hess 1 2-4 4; Neal 6 10-10 24; Wright 4 1-2 9. Totals 24 19-30 72.
S -Williams 1 0-0 2; Murray 1 0-0 2; Holubeck 0 2-4 2; Ford 0 2-6 2; Pagano 6 11-15 23; Whorton 1 1-2 4; Clark 0 1-2 1; Schnegg 1 0-0 2; Bossell 4 1-4 9; Rataiczak 0 0-0 0; Opic 1 0-1 2. Totals 15 18-35 49.
3-Point Goals: Wiggins, Back, Ky.Hess; Whorton.
Bellaire24 22 16 10 - 72
St. John11 12 10 16 - 49