East eliminates Harding in Friday’s sectional final

ALLIANCE – For the Youngstown East Panthers it was almost as good as winning a district championship.

That’s why the Panthers celebrated their 63-58 win over the Warren G. Harding Raiders in the Division I district tournament here Friday in a way not normally reserved for a second-round game. So what if the Raiders aren’t as talented as last season’s team. They were the defending district champion, which is all that mattered to the Panthers.

“No matter how you cut it, they’re still the champion,” Panthers coach Dennis Simmons said. “You can’t become the champion until you beat the champion, and right now at this point ugly, don’t like it, but at the end of the day we’re still playing.”

The ugly reference was an apt description of the way the game played out. There was no smooth flow because of a combined 57 turnovers (30 by the Panthers and 27 by the Raiders). East appeared ready to pull away more than once, but each time it committed a succession of turnovers that kept the score close.

The Raiders (13-10) weren’t able to take full advantage of those mistakes. That was the frustrating thing for Harding coach Andy Vlajkovich.

“That was not one of our crisper performances,” Vlajkovich said. “I thought we were playing crisp basketball in the second half of the season.

“We looked completely out of rhythm. I’m not sure why that is. I guess I’ll have to do some soul-searching on that one.”

The Raiders had trouble dealing with the Panthers’ deployment of a 3-2 zone defense. Vlajkovich saw the 3-2 when scouting East and figured it would pop up after the Panthers opened in a man-to-man.

Harding needed to loosen up the defense by making some 3-point shots, but it managed just two by Anthony Bell and one by Mik’quan Dorsey.

“When you have long guys, playing a 3-2 like that presents some challenges,” Vlajkovich said. “That’s on me. I didn’t have us as prepared as we needed to be against that. I’ll make that correction in 2013-14.”

The pace of the game was often helter-skelter. Ill-advised cross-court passes usually resulted in a turnover and a frantic dash to the opposite end.

“When you play fast, I tell them all the time that you have to switch gears,” Vlajkovich said. “You can’t play crazy on defense and turn around and play crazy on offense. You have to play under control a little bit. We get in that crazy mode at both ends of the floor.”

The Raiders trailed most of the first quarter but scored eight straight to take a 14-13 lead. The Panthers (18-6) led 28-24 at halftime and stretched the advantage to 11 points early in the third period.

Trailing 42-38 through three quarters, the Raiders got as close as two points on two occasions, including 59-57. Anthony Reid then made two free throws for the Panthers. After a charging call on King Garner, Reid made two more free throws to seal the win.

Bell, who fouled out late in the fourth quarter, and Dorsey both had 14 points. O’Sha Jackson finished with 10.

Terrell McClain led East with 16 points. Deontay Scott added 14, Taylor Johnson had 12 and Marquis Cotton scored 10. Cotton had eight in the fourth quarter, including four on two strong drives to the basket.

“We had to come out fast,” Simmons said. “When we played them (and lost by three points) at their gym, they came out fast. We wanted to keep them off balance.”

Vlajkovich wasn’t completely satisfied with his first season as the Harding coach.

“I want to thank my staff because they bought into it all year,” Vlajkovich said. “I’d really like to thank my three seniors (Dorsey, Greg Jackson and O’Sha Jackson).”

East will play top-seeded Uniontown Lake Wednesday in the semifinals. Lake defeated Canfield, 54-51, last night.