WARREN - It wasn't as if the Warren G. Harding Raiders weren't accustomed to playing on back-to-back nights.
They just weren't used to playing the second game after a win. The Raiders lost the first game each of the three previous times they played on consecutive nights this season.
That wouldn't seem to be a significant factor, but it may have been one reason for a lethargic start Saturday against the Canton Timken Trojans. Fortunately, for the Raiders, the Trojans were even more out of sync in the early going and Harding pulled out a 54-50 non-conference win.
The night before, the Raiders won their first Lake Erie League road game, 65-56, over East Cleveland Shaw. There might have been a tendency to still be riding the good vibes of that win instead of concentrating on the task at hand.
"We were coming off a big road win, and guys let their guard down a little bit," Raiders coach Andy Vlajkovich said. "We didn't come out with the type of energy that we needed to. I thought we defended somewhat decent in the first quarter, but we never got into that flow. Finally we started to a little bit in the third quarter."
The Raiders (10-7) managed just seven first-quarter points, but the Trojans had more trouble finding the basket in scoring just four points. The slow starts by both teams prompted one official to tell Vlajkovich that "we have to get the lids off the baskets."
Harding continued to struggle on the offensive end in the second quarter and trailed at halftime, 20-17. The Raiders picked up the scoring pace in the third period with 16 points, including seven by Mik'quan Dorsey.
Leading 42-40 midway through the fourth quarter, the Raiders scored eight unanswered points to open a 50-40 lead. The Trojans (10-6) made a late run, but the Raiders were successful on 13-of-18 free throws in the session to seal the win.
O'sha Jackson was 5-of-6 from the line in the quarter to finish with 13 points.
"In practice I've been working on my free-throw shooting." Jackson said. "I'm getting better at them every day."
Jackson knew there was something missing at the start of the game. During one timeout in the second quarter, Vlajkovich told the players, "We've got some energy now."
"We had a slow start," Jackson said. "We just had to come together."
The Raiders played at a noticeable size disadvantage, which has been the case in most games. They had trouble containing 6-4 senior Chris Cook, who scored 21 points and pulled down 18 rebounds.
"We've been playing small ball all year," Vlajkovich said. "This is nothing new for us. I thought Shaw was bigger than Timken was. We have our flaws, but we're trying to let the strengths of playing small ball kind of outweigh the weaknesses."
Anthony Bell had 15 points to lead the Raiders in scoring. Dorsey had nine points before suffering a bloody nose on a shot to the face in the fourth quarter. He returned wearing a new number in place of his bloody jersey.
Harding has won three straight. It might not seem like a lengthy streak, but it's significant for a team that was short on experience at the start of the season.
"I didn't think we played very well," Vlajkovich said. "We were kind of tough and gritty and grinding through not playing very well. That's a sign of a team growing up a little bit how do you play when you're not playing well? Last night we had 18 assists. Tonight we didn't play in the same rhythm we did last night, but you have to give our kids some credit for hanging tough."
Justin Williams had 12 points, and Lepear Toles added 10 for the Trojans.
Harding returns to action Friday at home against Warrensville Heights.