CANTON - It wasn't a big surprise to see the Villa Angela-St. Joseph Vikings defeat the Ursuline Fighting Irish, 69-60.
It was surprising that the Irish trailed by just seven points almost midway through the fourth quarter.
Gifted with size that would fit in well with a major college basketball program, the Vikings had 380 reasons why they should have made the Division III regional final Saturday at the Memorial Field House a rout. The 380 total is the number of inches when combining the height of VA-SJ's five starters, which averages out to 6-4 per player.
Tribune Chronicle / Michael Taylor
Ursuline’s Paul Jackson (23) battles with Villa Angela-St. Joseph’s Carlton Bragg (31) during a Division III?Regional Final at the Canton Memorial Field House on Saturday.
Yet there were the undersized Irish crawling to within seven points, 49-42, of a tie when Greg Parella made a 3-point shot in the fourth quarter. The remarkable part of the story to that point was that Ursuline looked as good as done after falling behind by 20 points, 45-25, in the early stages of the third period.
"We never quit," Irish coach Keith Gunther said. "We started pressing and got some turnovers and made some buckets. It kind of got us back in it, but when you're down 20 and cut it to 10, now all of a sudden you have another 10, and it makes it difficult."
Simon Texidor followed Parella's 3-pointer with a 3 from the left corner for the Vikings. The shot silenced the Ursuline faithful, who were making considerable noise. The Irish got it to within seven at 52-45, but two free throws each by Derek Pardon and Deandre Forte pushed the Vikings' lead to 11 points.
VA-SJ (21-7) stretched its lead to as many as 14 points down the stretch.
The Irish, who finished the season at 18-9, came up short in two critical areas - 3-pointers and height. The Irish made nine shots from beyond the arc, but Gunther was hoping for at least 15. There was nothing Gunther could do about the size differential.
Two Vikings who controlled play under the baskets were 6-10 junior Carlton Bragg and the 6-8 Pardon. Bragg scored 21 points and grabbed six rebounds. Pardon had 15 points, 13 rebounds and five blocked shots.
"When we scouted them last week, we were like, yeah, they're kind of big, but I think we can do a pretty good job on them," Irish 6-5 senior Gino Naples said. "Once you go out there and actually go against them, those dudes are big and strong and they're athletic. I think they're more or less fun to play with. I actually had a good time. They're very competitive."
Naples and the rest of his teammates were forced to take more chances on the defensive end than normal, which resulted in considerable foul trouble. Six of the eight players who saw action had two fouls in the first half. Naples and Parella fouled out in the fourth quarter.
On the offensive end, it was apparent that the only way to score consistently for Ursuline was from the perimeter. Mark Hughes, who led the Irish with 22 points, managed an occasional fielder on a drive, but he and guards Dave Collins and Parella resorted to creating the best possible 3-point looks.
"It's tough because when you're penetrating gaps, you have a 6-10 kid swatting it," Gunther said. "Early on I think they kind of intimidated us blocking a lot of shots. I thought we were a little impatient on offense. We should have moved the ball a little more and get a look on the fourth or fifth pass and not on the second pass."
The Irish led early, but the Vikings regrouped to take a 15-11 lead after one quarter. VA-SJ had a 31-22 halftime lead, which put pressure on Ursuline to get off to a fast start in the second half.
Instead it was the Vikings who started quickly as Brian Parker took the inbounds pass to start the third quarter and drove inside for a three-point play that sparked a 7-0 run. VA-SJ went on to open a 49-35 lead after the third period.
"We definitely thought we could come back, but they just kept matching us," Irish senior Paul Jackson said. "We come down and miss a shot, and they get the rebound and bring it back. There's not much you can do about that."
Parella finished with 12 points. Collins had 10.
With Hughes, Parella and Collins all returning next season, the future is bright for Ursuline. The bad news is that all five of VA-SJ's starters are juniors.
"They're just as young as we are," Gunther said. "I told our kids that they're probably going to be back here next year. I would love to get another shot at them."