Driver steers Fitch to win

ALLIANCE – Sometimes kids can make adults look line geniuses, as Austintown Fitch Falcons coach Brian Beany discovered Tuesday night.

With the Falcons trailing the Howland Tigers by 17 points at halftime in a first-round Division I district game at Harry Fails Gymnasium, Beany told his star player, junior Jesse Driver, that he needed more from him. The four points Driver put up in the first half weren’t going to get the job done.

As if on cue, Driver played his part perfectly. He erupted for 17 third-quarter points and had 28 in the second half as the Falcons rallied from an 18-point deficit to advance to the second round with a 70-67 overtime win.

“I told him, ‘Big-time players step up,’ ” Beany said. “Show me you’re a big-time player in the second half and help us win this game.”

Driver made 11 field goals, including five 3-pointers, and was 5-of-6 from the foul line. He scored on an assortment of drives to the basket and perimeter shots.

“He (Beany) told us if we wanted our season to end to go out and play like we did in the first half,” Driver said. “But if we want to make a statement and put the program where it used to be, we have to go out with passion and play with more energy and focus on the little things.”

Driver knows exactly the moment when he felt good about the outcome. It occurred on a four-point play that tied the score at 60 late in the fourth quarter. He put up the shot beyond the top of the key and was fouled by John-Mark Weisman.

“I saw it go through the net,” said Driver, who slid across the floor during the sequence. “I knew we were winning the game then for sure.”

The Tigers (10-13) were in decent shape when a fielder by Tommy Carnifax and two foul shots by Reece Bogan broke a tie and gave them a 60-56 lead. Fitch’s Alex Difrancesco then missed two free throws, and the Tigers grabbed the rebound.

An ill-advised shot with less than one minute to play led to a Fitch rebound and another opportunity for the Falcons (10-13).

That play summed up a poor second half for the Tigers, who couldn’t have performed much better in the first half. Howland’s biggest lead was 46-28 midway through the third quarter.

“We had key players miss key shots,” Tigers coach Bill Bogan said. “I thought we got a little tight in the second half now that it was a different game. Our kids were kind of wondering how to play a little bit in the second half.”

The Tigers had a chance to win at the end of regulation, but a shot in front of two defenders from inside the lane by Arbie Murray was off target. It was then on to overtime, where the momentum of Driver’s four-point play carried Fitch to a quick six-point lead on a 3-point shot by Driver, one free throw by Gabe Chepke and a fielder by Difrancesco.

“Anytime you get into an overtime game and put points on the board first, obviously it’s a huge psychological advantage,” Beany said. “When you add a 3 to it, it really makes you feel good.”

The Tigers led 11-6 after one period. Howland, which made 15 3-point shots last Friday against Boardman, made four in the second quarter to open a 33-16 halftime lead.

The Falcons cut the lead to 34-26 early in the third quarter, but the Tigers weathered the rally to stretch their lead 18 points. Driver’s scoring frenzy reduced Howland’s lead after three periods to 50-43.

Cope finished with 21 points. Weisman had 18 and Bogan added 13.

Difrancesco scored 12 points. Quincy Higgins had 10 for the Falcons.

“It’s disappointing for us,” Bill Bogan said. “We didn’t come to Howland to be 10-13. We came to Howland to be an upper-level basketball team, and in our opinion we underachieved this year.

“We didn’t come here to get knocked out in the first round of the tournament. We came here to win games in the tournament. Until we can do that on a regular basis, we’re not going to be satisfied.”