Okolo, Raiders off to winning start in league play

In good hands: Okolo, who worked on his jump­er and drib­bling in the off­season, led the way with 19 points in Sunday’s 55-38 win. BRAD LAR­RIS­ON / FOR THE TIMES

— Bry­an Okolo and Arch­bish­op Ry­an got off to a per­fect 2-0 start in Cath­ol­ic League play.

Bry­an Okolo will be the first to ad­mit that the of­fens­ive sys­tem his Arch­bish­op Ry­an bas­ket­ball team runs hardly re­sembles the ex­plos­ive, run-and-gun style of, say, the United States Olympic team.

For Okolo, that’s just fine. What the Raid­ers lack in sex­i­ness they more than make up for in ef­fi­ciency — as well as re­lent­less in­tens­ity on the de­fens­ive end — an ap­proach that more of­ten than not leads to vic­tor­ies.

“I like our of­fense,” the Raid­ers’ seni­or guard and lead­ing scorer said. “It’s nice and slow, but it gets us the points we need.”

Okolo and the Ry­an of­fense cer­tainly got what they needed in Sunday af­ter­noon’s 55-38 Cath­ol­ic League vic­tory over Con­well-Egan. It wasn’t the most ex­cit­ing ef­fort in the world, but in this cut­throat league any win comes with a tre­mend­ous sense of ac­com­plish­ment.

The Raid­ers quickly built a 14-6 lead after one quarter and nev­er gave the Eagles an op­por­tun­ity to come back. Ry­an smothered Egan with a shut­down de­fense (no play­er on the young Eagles scored in double fig­ures) and that afore­men­tioned ef­fi­cient of­fens­ive at­tack that head coach Bernie Ro­gers’ teams al­ways seem to do well.

Against Egan, Okolo con­nec­ted on three of five three point­ers en route to a team-high 19 points and nine re­bounds. The vic­tory gave Ry­an two wins dur­ing its league-open­ing week­end, beat­ing West Cath­ol­ic, 55-43, on Fri­day night.

The sched­ule will only in­tensi­fy as Janu­ary pro­gresses, so a per­fect week­end to start Cath­ol­ic League play was just what the doc­tor ordered.

“It was good for our guys, be­cause they needed to see the in­tens­ity level of these games and how fast it picks up,” said Ro­gers, whose team is off to a 7-4 over­all start. “On Fri­day night, be­fore the game, I told them they were down to 13 chances in the best league in the state. You can’t take a night off, be­cause every win gets you one step closer to the play­offs, which is our goal. You’ve got to show up every time, and every win is a good win.”

The team knows it needs to ex­ecute in these early league games so that it can pre­pare for the top teams in the league when they come call­ing (St. Joseph’s Prep, Neu­mann-Gor­etti, La Salle, Ro­man Cath­ol­ic, to name a few). 

And for a team that won 18 games a sea­son ago (in­clud­ing nine in the Cath­ol­ic League), ex­pect­a­tions run high for the Raid­ers. Most of the eyes are fixed on Okolo, and right­fully so. As a ju­ni­or, he emerged as a top scor­ing threat, but his game ap­peared more one-di­men­sion­al a year ago. Then, his of­fens­ive game was pre­dic­ated mainly on three-point­ers with the oc­ca­sion­al mid-range pull-up.

Now, the 5-foot-10 Okolo re­sembles a dif­fer­ent play­er. On Sunday, he con­fid­ently put the ball on the floor and at­tacked the rim, either look­ing for his own high-per­cent­age shots be­neath the rim or kick­ing the ball out to open team­mates on the peri­met­er. When he him­self pulled up from the peri­met­er, Okolo’s shot pos­sessed some re­fined gusto. He cred­ited a ded­ic­ated off­season, as well as last year’s lead­er­ship of gradu­ated seni­ors Chris­ti­an Rivera, Kyle Slaw­ter and Nick Au­gen­baugh, to his own seni­or sea­son emer­gence.

“Last year shaped me a lot,” he said. “Chris­ti­an, Kyle and Augh­ie were all great lead­ers, so I just tried to im­it­ate what those guys did. Most days this off­season, I just came over to Ry­an and took a lot of shots, mid-range and three-point­ers. I also worked on my drib­bling, be­cause I knew I’d be hand­ling the ball more this sea­son.”

His coach no­tices the dif­fer­ence.

“He worked really hard in the off­season and he ex­pan­ded his game to in­clude more driv­ing and post­ing up,” Ro­gers said. “He’s so con­fid­ent in his skills that he’s mak­ing the oth­er guys bet­ter. He’s not strictly a scorer, as maybe he was last year. He can do a little bit of everything, and here we like guys that can pass, dribble and shoot.”

The Raid­ers have sev­er­al ef­fi­cient, in­ter­change­able play­ers on the roster to com­ple­ment Okolo. Against Con­well-Egan, seni­or Gage Ga­le­one was con­stantly around the ball en route to 12 hard-earned points, and ju­ni­or Brendan Hor­an mixed in four points, three re­bounds and three as­sists in the first quarter while Okolo took time to get go­ing. Seni­or Shawn Miller was also a quiet con­trib­ut­or, and 6-foot-7 Billy Dykan, des­pite be­ing saddled by foul trouble, gave the size-chal­lenged Raid­ers a new op­tion in the lane. Ry­an has a team full of role play­ers that can pro­duce suc­cess for the team when every­one is work­ing hard in his defined role.

“We have four or five guys who can make shots, and they all work for each oth­er,” Ro­gers said. “Be­cause we aren’t a big team, our kids have to have that hungry, com­pet­it­ive mind­set where we gang-re­bound the ball. We don’t have one guy hov­er­ing around the rim clean­ing everything up for us, so we’ve got to work a little more col­lect­ively.”

The Cath­ol­ic League typ­ic­ally fea­tures the usu­al sus­pects at the top of the stand­ings, so it re­mains to be seen how much of a dent this Raid­ers group will be able to cre­ate. But after win­ning 18 games a sea­son ago us­ing largely the same philo­sophy they cur­rently em­ploy, the Raid­ers be­lieve they will be a tough out for the op­pos­i­tion every time they step on the court. And this time around, they have an even bet­ter Okolo lead­ing the way.

“When we work to­geth­er, we’re a great unit,” he said. “If we do what we did today, then we can be there with any­one at the end. We truly be­lieve that. If we let one up, then it’s one more we’ll have to make up in the stand­ings. And for me, I know there’s no next year, so I have to go get it now.”

Ro­gers agreed with his star’s as­sess­ment.

“Bry­an is a good per­son, and when you have good people that want to be coached, that usu­ally trans­lates onto the court,” he said. “He’s pretty quiet, but guys re­spect him and fol­low his lead. They see a kid do­ing things the right way and get­ting pos­it­ive res­ults, and that’s easy to fol­low. They see that’s how it’s done and how you get bet­ter. 

“These kids ex­per­i­enced some suc­cess last year, and they want to either keep that, or even raise the bar just a little bit more.” ••

Sports Ed­it­or Ed Mor­rone can be reached at 215-354-3035 or em­or­rone@bsmphilly.com

You can reach at emorrone@bsmphilly.com.

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