McDonald overcomes stubborn Jays
By ERIC MURRAY
MCDONALD — The underdog Jackson-Milton Blue Jays gave undefeated McDonald all it could handle Friday night, but ultimately, a rough start to the third quarter doomed the Blue Jays’ hopes for an upset.
McDonald held Jackson-Milton to just two points in the first three and a half minutes of the third period, allowing the Blue Devils to go ahead by double-digits — a lead they essentially maintained the rest of the way in the 72-58 decision.
“We usually go to a ‘100’ (defensive set), we were faceguarding, it wasn’t really working,” McDonald senior Joey Ragazzine said. “So we went to a ’75’ and got a lot of our steals from the 75.”
McDonald had a six-point lead to start the second-half, and then Ragazzine found Dylan Portolese on a layup, followed by a pair of Ragazzine free throws to give McDonald an 11-point advantage.
The lead bounced between eight and 11 points by quarter’s end, but in the fourth period, McDonald just became too much. A basket by Ragazzine and a quick steal on the inbound by Josh Celli led to another layup, extending McDonald’s lead to 72-54, with just over two minutes remaining.
“Their (McDonald’s) press is brutal and our kids knew it coming in, we talked about it,” Blue Jays coach Stephen Procopio said. “All week long we said, ‘Hey, they’re gonna get up in you,’ So we really worked on it, we threw six, seven guys on the floor in practice and made our guys break the press against six, seven guys because we knew it was coming. They (McDonald) just did a good job of executing, it leads to buckets.”
Jackson-Milton (4-6) got off to an early 10-6 lead, thanks to a Clayton Maskarinec putback. Maskarinec (6-foot-4) and Noah Laster (6-3) used their length to dominate the board against McDonald early on, but then the Blue Devils finally began to find their shooting stroke, late in the opening period.
A Ragazzine bucket-and-1, plus a Breadon Poole putback, a Portolese 3-pointer and a Ragazzine driving layup, completed a 10-0 run, putting McDonald ahead, 16-10, with just over a minute left in the first quarter.
The Blue Jays rallied on numerous occasions in the second quarter, frequently keeping the deficit to about four points throughout, and even closed the gap to a single point multiple times late in the first half.
Trailing 30-27, Taylor Kleinknecht had a one-handed putback to get Jackson-Milton back within one, before layups by Poole and Portolese extended the score, once again. Ultimately, McDonald led, 39-33, going into the half, as Ragazzine scored 17 of his 30 points in the first-half.
“You gotta make easy opportunities. How many easy layups did we miss? How many wide-open 3’s? So, we gotta make easy opportunities,” McDonald coach Jeff Rasile said about his team’s first-half woes. “We should have been up 50-20, and when we don’t convert those, we jog around a little bit.”
McDonald improves to 9-0 on the year, but will face its greatest challenge tonight, when it meets 9-1 Wellsville in a rematch of last year’s Division IV Struthers District title game. The Blue Devils took that game, 67-48, before losing to Lutheran East in a regional semifinal.
As for the Blue Jays, they’re coming off of an 0-23 campaign, but are already excelling under Procopio, who’s in his first year as a head coach . Procopio has been impressed with his team’s passion thus far, and Friday’s performance earned the praises of Rasile and Ragazzine.
“This group has been so great, they’ve done everything we’ve asked of them, they’ve consistently gotten better,” Procopio said. “They’re finally realizing that they’re a winning basketball team. It’s all coming together, and it’s obviously shown tonight. I think that’s the closest game McDonald’s had all year, and we might have held them to the lowest points they’ve had all year.”