Changing perception

Harding holds off Canton McKinley

Tribune Chronicle / Joe Simon Warren G. Harding’s Delmar Moore, left, and Trivell Trimble, right, celebrate the Raiders’ 61-60 victory over Canton McKinley on Tuesday at Warren G. Harding High School.

WARREN — Andy Vlajkovich was fired up before a game that was bound to be intense even started.

The Warren G. Harding High School basketball coach was tired of hearing the grumblings, and he wanted the Raiders to understand it was time to change a certain perception prior to their matchup with Canton McKinley

“I told them I’m sick of hearing that we don’t beat good teams,” Vlajkovich said. “I told them that in the pregame. (McKinley) beat us the last two years. We struggled with Ignatius, we struggled with Kennedy Catholic, and here comes an elite program into our house. I told them, ‘Competing isn’t acceptable.’ “

Message received.

Terrian Jackson scored the go-ahead lay-up in the final minute, and Harding forced a turnover on the Bulldogs’ final possession to hold on for a thrilling 61-60 nonconference victory.

Tribune Chronicle / Joe Simon Warren G. Harding’s Delshawn Redd (0) and Elizah Smith, left, celebrate during the Raiders' 61-60 victory over Canton McKinley on Tuesday.

The lead changed several times in the final quarter, but a 3-pointer by McKinley’s Kobe Johnson with 1:05 left gave the Bulldogs a 60-59 lead. Harding (13-6) tried to run a set play on the ensuing possession, but things didn’t work out — at first.

Sophomore guard D’Muntize Owens drove to the hoop once the play was foiled and dropped a perfect pass to Jackson, who calmly laid in the eventual game-winner. The 6-foot-5 senior finished with 12 points and nine rebounds.

“All my teammates talk to me, and we all stand together and communicate,” said Jackson of how he was able to stay poised in a pressure-packed situation. “We play for each other.”

They play defense, too.

McKinley (10-8) had the ball with 45 seconds left, and after struggling to find a shot, coach Rick Hairston called a timeout. The Bulldogs attempted to set up a play on the inbounds pass, but Harding’s defense thwarted the scheme, Hairston said. That left Johnson near the top of the key in a one-on-one situation. He tried to drive to the hoop but lost possession, and the ball was batted around as time expired.

Tribune Chronicle / Joe Simon Warren G. Harding’s Terrian Jackson, right, defends Canton McKinley's Za'Vonte Howell during their game Tuesday at Warren G. Harding High School.

“You at least want to try and get a shot up in that situation,” Hairston said. “But give them (Harding) some credit. Defensively, they played some pretty good basketball.”

The game was played at a high level from the tip.

Both teams had technical fouls, impressive high-flying dunks and big shots that swung the momentum. Neither side held a lead larger than five, with Harding and McKinley trading blows nearly every time down the court.

Delmar Moore made several key plays for the Raiders — including a crowd-pleasing 3-pointer after a ridiculous reverse alley-oop dunk by McKinley. The 6-6 senior, who slammed down his own alley-oop earlier in the game, scored 20 points and grabbed six rebounds.

While Owens only scored six points, the sophomore added four assists and made smart decisions when the game was in the balance.

“It felt like, at times, he controlled the game,” said Vlajkovich of Owens, who he added has made giant strides since the beginning of the season. “We had to hide him in the first two games, and he has just grown up so much. He’s not any more talented than he was at the beginning of the year, but he just understands things so much better.”

Moore’s presence has been equally important.

He missed the first 11 games after returning to Warren from South Carolina. Since his insertion into the lineup, Harding has lost just once and now has a player who can score inside, outside, rebound and be a versatile defender. His biggest asset may be his ability to answer after the opposing team makes a big play — something he’s done several times over the last eight games.

“When someone makes a big play, I just try to erase it out my head,” Moore said, “and try to do the best I can to score the ball or get one of my teammates involved in a play.”

The win could go a long way for the Raiders, who Vlajkovich admitted wouldn’t have stood a chance against McKinley earlier in the year.

A once-inexperienced team is showing marked improvement in several areas, and they’re finding ways to overcome adverse situations in big games.

“For our guys to have a win against that (kind of team), all it does is make them believe,” Vlajkovich said. “I know that we have the talent to win against elite teams, but they need to believe they can win against elite teams.”