YOUNGSTOWN - Andy Vlajkovich looked into the future Saturday night, and he liked what he saw.
The Warren G. Harding Raiders coach gave significant playing time to freshman Derek Culver in a non-conference game against the Ursuline Fighting Irish. Culver looks more like a freshman in college with his imposing 6-foot-8 frame, which he put to good use in the Raiders' 64-61 win.
Culver led the Raiders in scoring with 16 points and rebounds with 10. He blocked three shots, giving an inside presence on the defensive end that can alter the shots of opposing players and the minds of opposing coaches looking for ways to score near the basket.
"He's a really big kid, so he should have a really big impact," Vlajkovich said. "He's just a baby. He's literally learning by the day. He's gotten a ton better as this year has gone on. His work ethic has really improved, and that's what you see."
It wasn't all youth being served by the Raiders, who have a 5-2 record. Senior guard King Garner continued his steady play. Garner scored nine points and had four assists and four steals.
"The guy that deserves the most credit tonight was King Garner," Vlajkovich said. "That kid hadn't scored a lot all year, and he only scored a little bit tonight. He's been my rock all year. He's that guy I lean on."
Culver was consistent throughout the game, but his play early in the fourth quarter proved crucial. The Raiders led 42-37 through three periods and needed a positive start to the final period. Culver did just that by opening the session with a fielder and then adding a pair of free throws after Mark Hughes made one free throw and Gino Naples connected from the field for the Irish (6-3).
Culver's free throws gave the Raiders a 46-40 lead. The Irish got as close as two points on four occasions down the stretch, the last time when a 3-point shot by Greg Parella made it 61-59.
Culver then made one of two fouls shots. David Collins made a fielder for the Irish, but Jarelle Johnson gave Harding a 64-61 lead with two foul shots.
The Irish then set up for a last-second 3-point attempt. Hughes took an unsuccessful shot from just beyond the top of the arc.
"They're good," Vlajkovich said of the Irish. "Their guards are good. Parella is good, and Mark Hughes is a really good player. They drove us off the bounce all night. That was something I was worried about. We didn't do a good job of defending the dribble drive, and they have three really good guards."
Culver gained confidence as the game progressed. He drew several fouls, converting 6-of-12 from the foul line.
"As the game went along I felt that I found my place and what I was doing in the game," Culver said. "I felt comfortable."
Vlajkovich relied on another younger player that hadn't logged many varsity minutes - sophomore point guard Gabe Simpson. With senior guard Anthony Bell suffering a lower leg injury midway through the first quarter, Simpson was forced to carry a larger load in running the offense.
"Anthony wasn't at 100 percent," Vlajkovich said. "You look at our scoring and it didn't look like it did all year. We had to rely on some young guys."
Bell had 10 points. Shakem Johnson had 10 points and seven rebounds, and Jarelle Johnson finished with 10 points.
The Irish played without senior guard Desmond McElroy, who's a big part of the offense. McElroy wasn't available because of a legal issue that coach Keith Gunther believes will be resolved soon.
"Bell had been scoring about 23 or 24 a game when we scouted them," Gunther said. "I thought if we got him under control, played good team defense and kept them off the glass a little bit that we had a chance. I thought Culver and Shakem really hurt us on the glass."
Collins led the Irish in scoring with 16 points. Hughes had 15 and Parella finished with 10.