Harding halted

CLEVELAND – Garfield Heights came into Wednesday night’s contest with, arguably, the most talent in the Division I regional tournament at Wolstein Center.

Four players are already committed to D-I college programs. One that isn’t stole the show.

Junior off guard Shawn Christian hit all four of his first-quarter 3-pointers on his way to a game-high 23 points. He also made two foul shots with 41 seconds remaining to put the Bulldogs up by four as his team held on to defeat Warren G. Harding, 49-43, in a regional semifinal.

“Shawn was the hot hand, definitely,” Garfield Heights coach Sonny Johnson said. “Without what he did tonight, we don’t win this game. He’s one of the better shooting guards in the state.”

The Bulldogs (20-4) will meet Cleveland St. Ignatius Saturday with a second-consecutive trip to the state tournament on the line.

Unlike Christian’s performance, Harding was uncharacteristically ineffective from outside the arc. The Raiders attempted just seven 3-pointers and made one.

“One thing I’ll give my guys a ton of credit for is we didn’t shoot the ball particularly well, but we still guarded our butts off,” Harding coach Andy Vlajkovich said. “That’s a sign of a mature basketball team.”

Frankie Hughes, a Louisville recruit, finished with 10 points, Willlie Jackson (Missouri) led the Bulldogs with seven rebounds and Marreon Jackson (Toledo) paced the winners with four assists. The other recruit is 6-4 Braun Hartfield who will play at Youngstown State.

The Raiders, who finish at 23-4, were led by their bigs as 6-10 junior Derek Culver finished with 16 points and 6-7 senior Shakem Johnson added 13. The duo split 24 rebounds evenly as Harding held a 37-26 edge on the boards.

The Raiders scored the first four points of the game but trailed 18-16 after a quarter thanks to Christian’s dozen points and Harding’s six turnovers, all on Garfield steals. That would be a sign of things to come.

Each team scored 10 points in the second quarter and 13 in the third as Garfield held on to a two-point edge heading to the fourth. Ironically, even though it was a two-point game with under a minute remaining in the fourth, Harding’s final lead of the game came after Gabe Simpson’s layup made it 16-15 in the opening quarter.

Simpson, the Raiders’ senior point guard and their proverbial backbone, finished with just six points and two assists. He was just 2 of 12 from the floor and missed all five 3-point attempts.

“To us, he was their best player,” Johnson said. “I think they ran a lot of stuff for him. I think he changes pace well, he scores great. He gets the big guys easy layups. That’s a big part of what we wanted to do was contain him because, to me, he’s a great player.”

Down the stretch, Garfield spread the floor to run time off the clock and tried to isolate Willie Jackson so he could penetrate. The Raiders handled that fairly well, but came up with many empty possessions on the other end. Harding had five turnovers in the final quarter, again, all off Bulldog steals.

“I just thought we had a couple of careless turnovers in the fourth quarter,” Vlajkovich said. “And not one of them was a scared turnover. Not one of them was a non-aggressive turnover. These kids were trying to make plays and I cannot fault them for that.”

Turning the ball over stopped the Raiders from doing what they had done so well, get the ball to Culver in the low post.

“Actually I didn’t know I was going to get the ball as much as I did,” Culver said. “I didn’t know I was going to play this well. Honestly, that’s the last thing I would have cared about. I just (cared) about getting this win as a collective group.”

Johnson, who has seen his share of top-level athletes come through Garfield, was extremely impressed by Culver.

“Oh man, he was better than on film,” Johnson said. “He posted hard. He made strong moves. He demanded the ball more.”

Johnson’s layup off a Lynn Bowden pass got Harding within 45-43 with 1:01 on the clock. The Raiders got no closer as they turned the ball over twice in the final minute.

The Bulldogs will try to beat St. Ignatius for the second time in a month. According to Christian, his team will need a greater effort if it wants to get back to Columbus.

“We didn’t play how we wanted to tonight,” Christian said. “We have to get better defensively.”