ALLIANCE – With 12 seconds remaining in the game and Uniontown Lake out of timeouts, Gabe Simpson stood at the foul line.
Warren G. Harding led by two and the sellout crowd knew if the Raiders’ all-time leading scorer made two free throws, they would have the Division I district championship wrapped up.
The senior point guard closed out a game-high, 18-point performance in style as Harding emerged with a 48-42 victory. The Raiders (23-3) will meet Garfield Heights in a regional semifinal at Cleveland State on Wednesday.
“It kind of sums up his career, although it’s not over yet,” Harding coach Andy Vlajkovich said. “It kind of sums up what he is. I kind of had one of those, ‘that kid is pretty special’ moments.”
That Harding’s quiet leader, and its best performer from the foul line, made yet two more clutch shots in a career filled with them came as no surprise, especially to teammate Lynn Bowden.
“I trust Gabe with the soul of my life,” Bowden said. “I could be dying and I could depend on Gabe to come save me.”
While Simpson had a huge hand in the win, he wasn’t alone. Six-foot-10 junior Derek Culver had seven first-half blocks and finished with 11 points, 11 rebounds and those seven blocked shots. Bowden was in charge of guarding 6-foot-7 point guard Chandler Vaudrin and did so admirably, despite battling foul trouble all night. Bowden, a 6-1 junior, finished with eight points (six in the final 2:20), four rebounds and two assists.
“Size doesn’t intimidate me,” Bowden said. “I’m a strong man. I believe in myself and I had teammates that were helping me.”
Despite the close final outcome, Harding never trailed. Simpson had seven first-quarter points as his team led 10-5 after a quarter. Matt Jones, the Blue Streaks’ 6-8 center, scored all seven of his points in the second quarter, but Culver had five blocks to allow Harding to reach intermission with a 22-16 lead. Culver’s early work on the defensive end led to many altered Lake shots throughout the contest.
“I’ve kind of been pretty hard on Derek all year because I didn’t think he was active enough at the rim,” Vlajkovich said. “I told him he would make us great defensively once he finally got there. And tonight was the most active I’ve seen him.”
Added Culver: “I had to show that I was a defensive presence. That stopped them from attacking as much as they do. That slowed them down.”
Vaudrin scored six third-quarter points as Lake entered the final eight minutes down 32-28. Vaudrin finished with 17 points, eight assists, four rebounds and two steals.
“Lake High School has been to the district finals four years (in a row),” said Blue Streaks coach Tom McBride. “Chandler Vaudrin has been a varsity player four years. He’s going to go down as a legend at Lake. He’s scored over a thousand. He’s broken the assist record. He’s going to be a future hall of famer.”
Despite their star’s effort, the Streaks could not erase the deficit. They got within 35-33 after Drew Myers’ 3-pointer (Lake’s first of the game) with 4:28 remaining. But three times in the final three minutes Lake allowed Harding to penetrate for nearly uncontested layups.
McBride was asked for his take on those plays.
“We tried to run a little bit at No. 4 (Simpson) and he still broke the seam,” McBride said. “And it’s a 50-50. You kind of cat-and-mouse and try to stay at home. What are you going to do, try to force a tough layup to No. 4 or let Derek Culver dunk the freaking ball? That’s one of the dumbest questions I’ve ever had a reporter ask.”
Perhaps. But truth be told, Simpson was responsible for only the first of the trio of layups (which gave the Raiders a 40-35 lead). The others came from Bowden, one on a great ball fake and the second when Lake defenders froze. The latter put Harding in front 44-39 with 1:06 on the clock.
Jack Lostoski’s 3-pointer made it a two-point game with 15 seconds left. Simpson then hit the aforementioned foul shots and Bowden closed out the scoring with another pair of free throws.
“Just make them,” said Simpson when asked his thoughts prior to the foul shots. “I worked at them all day in practice (Friday). It feels good because last year we lost at this point and I just didn’t play my best game.”