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Looking ahead

Bristol, Ursuline have eyes on upcoming tournament

Staff photo / Joe Simon — Bristol’s Matt Church, left, attempts to back down Sean Phillips of Ursuline during their game Friday at Ursuline High School.

YOUNGSTOWN — Both Ursuline and Bristol entered an interesting matchup on Friday with hopes of using it as a way to prepare for the postseason.

They were just prepping in different ways.

The Irish continued to show their growth and overcame a hot start by the Panthers to pull away for a 74-59 victory at Ursuline High School.

The Irish (6-8) have played a daunting schedule to this point, which is why veteran Ursuline coach Keith Gunther wasn’t all that worried about an under-.500 record and a six-game losing streak. His Irish showed they’re battled tested by not panicking despite a 23-16 deficit in the first quarter in which Bristol (9-2) looked to be in rhythm and primed for a big night.

“A lot of young coaches need to realize that it’s not about your record early on,” Gunther said. “It’s about if you’re going to peak at tournament time. We get to .500 with the schedule we play, then we get over .500, and when tournament time rolls around, all that matters is that we’re fine tuned and we’re playing well. That’s been our M.O. for years. …

Staff photo / Joe Simon — Bristol’s Jeremy Miller, right, zips a pass across court while Ursuline’s DeMarcus McElroy defends Friday night in Youngstown.

“There’s a lot of people out there panicking. We’re not panicking. We’re just trying to get better every game. That’s all we’re worried about, and hopefully when March comes around, we’re peaking.”

They looked to be on the right track Friday.

Four players scored in double figures, led by DeMarcus McElroy’s 16 points. He was a steady presence all game, driving into the lane, finishing with a layup and also passing off to get teammates involved. Sean Phillips added 14 points, and he played a big role in the Irish’s second-half surge.

The game was tied at 32 at halftime, but Ursuline’s offense started to pick up in the third quarter. They went on a 14-6 run thanks to improved interior passing, forcing turnovers and grabbing numerous offensive rebounds (17 for the game).

Phillips scored all 14 of his points in the second half, several of which came with him gobbling up rebounds under the hoop and putting them back in with crafty layups.

“I’m not usually the person who’s trying to score a lot,” Phillips said. “I just kind of played my part tonight, and it happened to be me going back up with it.”

Bristol stayed within striking distance.

After a 23-point first quarter, Ursuline deployed a full-court press that seemed to wear on the Panthers. They scored just nine points in the second quarter, and made only two 3-pointers in the final three quarters (they had three in the first 8 minutes alone).

Still, Bristol pulled within 59-53 midway through the fourth quarter, but the Panthers ran out of gas as Ursuline ended the game on a 15-6 run.

“They sped us up early in the second quarter, and then we settled back in,” Bristol coach Craig Giesy said. “In the second half, more so than us being sped up, is that we just didn’t execute. Our defensive rebounding just absolutely destroyed us in the second half.

“I remember there was a timeout mid-fourth quarter, and we were down eight or something, and I said, ‘If we would simply defensive rebound, we would be up right now.’ From there, it just snowballed.”

The outcome wasn’t as important as the growth, for both teams.

The Panthers compete in Division IV during postseason play, so playing a consistently winning Division II program like Ursuline will have them prepared for some of the better teams they could potentially see down the road, Giesy said.

“This is exactly what we need though, going into late January and early February as we amp up for the tournament,” he said. “These are the types of teams we see in the tournament, and we have to be used to playing at this speed and this level. It’s exactly what we wanted. Very disappointed we lost, obviously, but coach Gunther and their records the last 20 years he’s been here, speak for itself.”

Gunther and the Irish took a lot from the matchup as well.

He said playing against one of the area’s more fundamentally sound teams forces his Irish to play at a high level throughout the game. His players admitted the experience was another one that aided their growth.

“We just always tried to keep our head level,” Phillips said. “We’ve been in a lot of close games this year. We’ve been down a lot this year. We’ve been up this year a lot. We’ve played in a lot of different types of games. At this point, nothing in the first quarter really fazes us. We just keep trying to play the game until the end.”

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