CANFIELD - Andy Vlajkovich probably had easier days dealing with chemistry classes at Canfield High School than he did coaching the Warren G. Harding Raiders here Tuesday night.
The Harding coach, a Canfield graduate, had to sweat every last detail before victory was achieved. Thankfully, for Vlajkovich, he had O'Sha Jackson to help pass the test of solving the Canfield Cardinals.
Jackson capped off a strong offensive performance with a 3-point shot from the right wing as time expired in the fourth quarter to give the Raiders a 61-58 win. Prior to Jackson's heroics, the Cardinals had rallied from an eight-point deficit to tie the game on three occasions.
"I saw the two seconds and I just had to let it release out of my hands and let it follow through to the hoop," Jackson said.
The final play didn't go as smoothly as Vlajkovich had hoped. The plan was to set up Mik'quan Dorsey, but it broke down. Jackson was then forced to put up a shot with two defenders in front of him.
"We tried to get the ball to the best scorer we had out there (Dorsey), and it didn't go well," Vlajkovich said. "He kind of drove it and kicked it once more to O'Sha. It was desperation time at that point. I probably should have called another timeout. I figured we'd make a play off the scramble situation and luckily we did."
It was Vlajkovich's first trip to Canfield as coach of the Raiders (12-7). That was a small part of the story in his estimation.
"It didn't matter where we played this game," Vlajkovich said. "It's not about me. Tonight wasn't about coming home. It was about getting better for the tournament, which we didn't do."
It was a choppy performance by the Raiders, but credit has to go to the Cardinals (16-5). Canfield trailed 46-39 through three quarters and was down by scores of 53-45, 54-46 and 56-48.
Andrew Midgley scored five unanswered points in cutting Harding's lead to 56-53. Marco Delorenzo then made a 3-pointer from the left corner to tie the score with 1:50 remaining in the fourth period.
Greg Jackson calmly made two free throws to regain the lead for the Raiders, but Cole Pryjma tied the score on a drive. Pryjma missed a chance to complete a three-point play and give the Cardinals a lead.
The Raiders then held the ball for more than one minute. Vlajkovich called a timeout with 27.6 seconds remaining to set up the final play.
"When you're looking at the percentages of a coach in shooting, you're willing to give up that shot," Cardinals coach Todd Muckleroy said. "It's better than a layup. It's a shame you have to lose like that after battling so hard."
Muckleroy might have had free throws in his dreams last night. The Cardinals could have won the game with just an average showing at the line, but instead were 12 of 25. The Raiders weren't much better in making 9-of-19 free throws.
"Outside of the free-throw shooting it's tough to be mad at them after an effort like that," Muckleroy said.
O'Sha Jackson bailed out the Raiders more than once on the offensive end in scoring a game-high 23 points. He was strong out of the gate, scoring 11 points in the first quarter.
"I had to step up for my teammates because some of my teammates didn't have a really good game," O'Sha Jackson said.
The Raiders led 19-14 after one period and 29-26 at halftime. There were times in the second half when they seemed on the verge of pulling away, but the Cardinals always had an answer.
"We can't sustain concentration for a long period of time," Vlajkovich said. "When you're not out-of-the-universe talented and are just a good, solid team, you have to maintain concentration for 32 minutes. We have to start doing that or else it's going to be a short March for us."
Dorsey finished with 12 points. Midgley and Jarret Vrabel had 13 points each for Canfield.