Cunningham leads Mooney past Salem, 61-46

BOARDMAN – Most coaches will celebrate a district semifinal win by heading out with friends and celebrating at a local establishment.

Brian Danilov is not like most coaches. Not by a long shot.

How did the Cardinal Mooney coach let loose after last Monday’s victory over Poland which sent the Cardinals to the Division II district championship game? By going home to a bowl of soup and to play with his dog, Rebound.

While a post-game chow may be a form of relaxation, Saturday night’s title tilt might have been decided by a pre-game meal. Junior guard Joe Cunningham scored a game-high 22 points, and had all five of his team’s 3-pointers, as Mooney overcame an early double-digit deficit to run away from second-seeded Salem, 61-46.

So what did Danilov feed Cunningham prior to his best game of the year?

“Good-shooting pasta,” said the Cardinals’ coach.

“He messes with me all the time,” added a smiling Cunningham. “Because of the Italian heritage, he tells me to eat fast pasta, play-good pasta, good-shooting pasta.”

He should repeat that diet before every game. Cunningham played like a man possessed on both ends of the court. He had at least one 3-pointer in every quarter and constantly harassed the Quaker guards defensively.

“They played well,” Salem coach Rich Hart said. “Cunningham hit some big shots.”

Mooney (12-11) will meet Warrensville Heights next Thursday in a battle of teams that were seeded sixth in their district tournaments. Tipoff at the Canton Memorial Civic Center is set for 8 p.m.

While the good-shooting pasta was key, so was the rebound battle (not referring to the dog). Mooney’s two bigs, 6-foot-8 Doug Caputo and 6-1 freshman Andrew Armstrong, outrebounded Salem’s duo of 6-6 Max Wolfgang and 6-4 Anthony Shivers, 27-14. Overall, the Cards had a 45-40 edge on the glass.

Caputo pulled down 15 boards while Armstrong finished with 12 points and 12 rebounds.

“He’s a freshman and he plays like he’s been here for five years,” Cunningham said of Amrstrong.

Added Danilov: “He couldn’t have come along any better. You always hear bring them along slowly so they’re not shell shocked. I don’t think anything can shell shock him. He’s just a tough cat.”

All the veteran players knew what it meant for Mooney to win its first district title since 1998. Armstrong, who became a starter midway through the season, is still learning.

“I’m still trying to take it all in,” he said. “It feels great. I just had to build my confidence first and keep working.”

Early on it appeared the rout would go the other way. The Quakers (19-7) opened up a 14-3 lead as Shivers had six points in the run and Ryan Bush matched him with a pair of 3-pointers. Salem led 16-8 after a quarter.

Things got progressively worse from that point on for the Quakers. Behind Mark Handel’s six points Mooney outscored Salem 15-3 in the second quarter to reach intermission with a four-point lead.

Armstrong had six points and five rebounds in a third quarter that saw the Cards emerge with a 38-33 lead. Armstrong began the fourth quarter with a layup after an offensive rebound and Cunningham followed that up with a 3-pointer to give Mooney a 10-point lead. Salem would get no closer than eight points the rest of the way as the Cards steadily widened their lead.

“We never got into any type of flow,” Hart said. “We didn’t execute at all after the first quarter.”

Bush finished with 19 points for Salem while Wolfgang added 12 points, nine rebounds and four blocked shots. Handel chipped in with 14 points for the winners and Joey Kleeh had six assists.

Danilov, in his first season at Mooney, extended an impressive streak. After taking last year off, his teams have now reached the district finals seven straight years in which he’s coached (the previous six at Campbell Memorial).

“I’m always a great coach when I got talent,” Danilov said. “When I got talent I look like a genius. I’m not that smart.”