Ugly WGH win important in Red Tier race

Tribune Chronicle / Joe Simon Howland’s Jonah Weisman, right, looks to pass as Warren G. Harding’s Chris Hughes (4) and Dom McGhee (23) defend during their game Tuesday at Warren G. Harding High School.

WARREN — To say there wasn’t much rhythm during the Warren G. Harding-Howland boys basketball game would be doing a disservice to the cheerleaders for the teams.

Both squads showed some nice dance moves during the halftime show.

The game itself? Well, someone had to win.

The Raiders pulled themselves together after an ugly first half and put together a run early in the fourth quarter to pull away for a 54-40 win over Howland.

The Tigers held the lead for most of the first quarter. The problem was that lead was just 2-0. Harding didn’t score until 3 minutes and 10 seconds remained in the quarter. The Raiders actually went on a “run” of sorts and led, 9-5, after the first quarter.

Tribune Chronicle / Joe Simon Howland’s Connor Tamarkin (13) passes to teammate Frankie Manios, center, while being defended by Warren G. Harding’s D’Muntize Owens on Tuesday at Warren G. Harding High School.

The scoring didn’t improve much from there, with Howland crawling in front, 19-17, by halftime.

“We were so out of rhythm tonight,” Harding coach Andy Vlajkovich said. “I thought we guarded really well — thank God — but we just could not find any kind of offensive rhythm. We couldn’t get anything going.”

While it wasn’t always pretty — the teams shot a combined 33-for-86 (38 percent) — the game was a big one within the All-American Conference’s Red Tier. Harding improved to 3-4 overall and 3-1 in the Red Tier. Howland fell to 6-4 and 3-2 in the league. Canfield (7-3, 4-0) is in first place, but the Cardinals still have to play Harding twice.

The Raiders are still in position for the league title because of a late run that started toward the end of the third quarter and spanned into the fourth. Trailing 28-24 early in the third quarter, Harding’s press defense forced three straight turnovers to spark a 13-3 run.

Three minutes into the fourth quarter, the Raiders had pushed the advantage to 44-32 with physical defense and some key plays by sophomore D’Muntize Owens and senior Dom McGhee.

“We knew we played terrible in the first half,” said McGhee, who scored a team-high 14 points. “We picked up the energy. We all played together. We played better on defense and executed on offense.”

Howland looked to be in good shape early in the second half, but leading scorer Connor Tamarkin came out for a quick breather — with the Tigers up, 28-24 — and that’s when the turnovers began. Three straight times the Raiders stole the ball as Howland brought it up court. When Tamarkin, who scored a game-high 17 points, returned, his team was trailing by one.

“It was horrible,” said Howland coach Dan Bubon, who held a lengthy meeting with his players after the game. “That set offensive basketball back, I don’t know, seven or eight decades, on our end. Pathetic.

“All they did was get up in us (on defense) as hard as they could, and we did nothing to combat it. It’s that simple.”

Bubon was frustrated because his senior-laden team has seen similar defensive tactics before, he said, but this time they didn’t respond.

Harding’s lead swelled to 46-32 with 3:52 left in the fourth quarter, and while the Tigers pulled within 46-36 with 2:57 left, they never got any closer. With the Raiders’ defense focused on slowing Tamarkin, other players struggled from the field (no other Howland player reached double figures).

“I’m glad this group has grown up a little bit and realizes that defense has to be a constant,” Vlajkovich said. “You can’t pick and choose when you’re going to guard. You’re going to have bad offensive nights. This isn’t the last time we’re going to have a rusty offensive night, but you cannot stop guarding.”

Owens, a 5-foot-10 sophomore guard, was one of the biggest keys for Harding.

He scored 13 points, including a clutch 3-pointer early in the fourth quarter that gave them a 44-32 lead, and he also played tough defense against Tamarkin for much of the game.

“Munch (Owens) gave us a nice spark tonight,” Vlajkovich said. “He’s a really high-character kid. He’s a great kid and a great student. If you would have saw him opening night against Shaw and then saw him tonight, the growth in those six games has been really, really awesome.”

It was one of the few bright spots in a game that didn’t see too many of them.