WARREN - Twenty games into the basketball season, Warren G. Harding was batting the .500 mark heading into Friday night's Lake Erie League contest with Cleveland Heights - the top-ranked team in the conference.
While many might have suggested that the Raiders lacked a signature victory, that potential theory was put to rest as they defeated the northeastern Ohio power, 66-60. The victory improves Harding to 11-10.
Despite the up-and-down season, Harding coach Andy Vlajkovich saw his young team take a huge step on Friday, which included a career-high 26 points and seven rebounds from sophomore Shakem Johnson.
Tribune Chronicle / Michael Taylor
Warren G. Harding’s Shondell Jackson (25)?shoots over Cleveland Heights’ Malik Moore (32).
"My teammates got me involved early," said Johnson, who shot 12 of 13 from the field. "Our guards were able to break their press all night, and they kept feeding me the ball inside and I was able to finish strong."
Sophomore Gabe Simpson led the Raider backcourt, finishing with 11 points. Vlajkovich said Simpson's ability to move the ball while limiting his mistakes impressed him the most.
"Gabe is a little guy, but he's so smart and savvy," Vlajkovich said. "He has a great feel for the game, and when your point guard has seven assists with just one turnover like he did tonight, you're probably going to win."
At this point of the season, Vlajkovich doesn't see youth as an excuse for not executing as his team already has gained a year's worth of experience already.
"After 20 games, our players are literally a year older than they were at the beginning of the season," Vlajkovich said. "Derek (Culver) is a sophomore. Gabe and Shakem are juniors, Shondell (Jackson) is a senior, and so on. They played like it tonight.
"We live in the present, and tonight's performance is an example of how we want to look in the postseason. Then again, we can't get too comfortable because that's how you can lose track and exit the playoffs early. We'll build on this and continue to work hard so that we can reach our goals."
Jackson had another huge night for the Raiders as he finished with 16 points and six rebounds. He knows that if the Raiders are going to be successful in the tournament, it's going to start with his play.
"We haven't been playing very well on the road, so we wanted to come home and make a statement tonight," Jackson said. "We want to make a run in the tournament, so beating Heights will be good for our confidence."
Heights (12-8) coach Andy Suttell, whose team defeated the Raiders last month, thought the pace of the game was the difference in the game.
"I think that we played a little tentative for a bit, and it affected our pace," Suttell said. "We're a team of runs, so when we have games when we're scoring in the 60's, that usually doesn't bode well for us. Then again, credit Harding for playing their game and coming away with the victory."
Jeremy Holmes led the Tigers with 19 points. DeAndre McDowell added 15.