Ursuline, Girard ready for matchup

It might be a stretch of the cliche to say these teams don’t like each other.

That’s not to say the Girard Indians and Youngstown Ursuline Fighting Irish basketball teams will be like bosom buddies when they face off tonight at 7 p.m. in the final of the Division III district at Howland High School.

“This is going to be a rivalry game,” Irish coach Keith Gunther said. “We have kids from Girard that go to Ursuline. It’s not a heated rivalry. Our kids want to win and they want to win. I can tell people that they better get there early.”

Indians coach Craig Hannon has sensed the rivalry in his two years as coach. Adding to the flavor was the transfer of junior Deonte Brown from Ursuline this school year.

“Everyone wants to beat Ursuline and (Youngstown Cardinal) Mooney because there are kids that live in Girard that go to Ursuline,” Hannon said. “That’s natural. There are some built-in things that will be fun, and I’m excited. I think coach Gunther would agree with that.

“We scrimmaged with them and our kids play in the summer with their kids. We know each other pretty well.”

The second-seeded Irish (16-8) advanced to the final with a 74-44 win over Newton Falls. The third-seeded Indians (20-3) downed the top-seeded LaBrae Vikings, 64-53.

Ursuline’s performance in the semifinals was marked by an uncanny display of 3-point shooting. The Irish were 10-of-17 in the first half and 12-of-24 for the game. Junior guard Mark Hughes led the way with five 3-pointers in scoring 30 points.

Gunther can’t count on a similar showing against the Indians, but he enters every game expecting something positive from the perimeter game.

“We hadn’t shot that well in the last four games, but we have shot it well,” Gunther said. “If we can continue to shoot it like that, it opens things up for us. Everyone plays off us because we’re good at getting to the basket. With us, you pick your poison. Our motto is if teams are backing up and the guards are open, let it go.”

Girard showed that it can withstand an outstanding performance by a big-time player in the win over LaBrae. Vikings star senior Peyton Aldridge finished with 30 points, but many came as he tried to will the Vikings back from a large second-half deficit.

“He (Hughes) is a hidden gem,” Hannon said. “Not a lot of people knew about him during the year. Because we scrimmaged them, we knew about him. He’s super-talented. He’s long and athletic. He looks like a basketball player. He’s definitely someone that impresses. He jumps off the screen when you watch him.”

As in most games at the more advanced stages of the tournaments, what happens in the first quarter will tell a big part of the story. A team can get scorching hot – the Irish on Tuesday being an example – or it can struggle to find the bottom of the net, which was the case when LaBrae scored just two first-quarter points against Girard.

The team that’s best able to control its nerves will have a head start on a good game.

“I try to tell the guys to don’t be shocked when we walk out and see a bunch of people wanting to watch it,” Hannon said. “I think we’ve done a pretty good job of that for the most part. Our kids have responded well early, and I’m hoping for the same. We’re a veteran group. We have a number of seniors and juniors that have been around. We’ll lean on that experience.”

Hannon might still be pinching himself as he goes for his first district title as a coach.

“I’m really lucky to have come to a place to coach such good players and good kids,” Hannon said. “A lot of people could have started at far worse places than I have.”

Winning district titles is fairly routine for Gunther, who has three of them in six previous final appearances in what is now his 10th season at the Irish helm. Ursuline last won the crown in 2011, which in Gunther’s math means it’s time to add another one.

“We’re hungry,” Gunther said. “The funny thing is out of every class I’ve had we had a district title. That’s what I’d like to do with this group.”

Adding to the mix is that it’s a confrontation with an opponent that, for all intents and purposes, is a backyard rival.