Raiders do what it takes to win

WARREN — Whether it was a big rebound, or giving the extra effort to get a hand in a face, the Warren G. Harding Raiders made enough big plays to get by Austintown Fitch, 48-40, in an All-American Conference Red Tier clash on Friday.

Raiders first-year coach, and 2007 Warren G. Harding graduate, Keelyn Franklin has helped guide his alma mater to a 10-5 record overall and a perfect 3-0 mark in the conference.

“This season has been a great experience for me,” Franklin said. “We started out 3-0 with some wins against some really good programs. Then, we hit a rough patch where we lost four in a row. Now, we’ve kind of gotten back on track. It’s been everything that I thought it was going be. It’s been a roller-coaster ride. I’m enjoying it, and it’s something that I don’t take lightly.”

The game may have been a microcosm of the Raiders season as they were up and down before getting on track late in the contest.

Harding was up 12-7 before Austintown’s Nate Leskovac followed up his own miss with a putback. Some sloppy play led to back-to-back traveling calls on each team. Todd Simons (team-high 13 points) scored six in the first quarter for the Falcons, but sophomore Tyriq Ivory’s and-one made it 18-14 Raiders after one quarter.

Brian Ferguson got the scoring started in the second for Fitch. Then, Kris Brown briefly gave the Falcons (6-6, 2-2) the lead, 19-18, when he nailed one from behind the arc. Harding junior Aston Bates (10 points) put the Raiders right back on top with a basket. Sophomore Dominick Foster had a huge highlight-reel dunk for the Raiders, but Allison Edwards’ smooth, up-and-under move gave the Falcons a 28-26 halftime advantage.

“I thought we fought hard,” Austintown coach Brian Beany said. “Holding them to 48 points, you would hope that would be a victory. That’s a pretty good defensive effort. We gave up too many crucial plays throughout the game. They got a couple big offensive rebounds. They got some 50/50 balls that we didn’t secure. You can’t do that in a game like this that was this tight.”

Harding senior D’Muntize Owens scored six of his game-high 19 points in the third quarter as the Raiders regained the lead, 38-36, in a nip-and-tuck battle heading to the fourth.

“It was a tough one,” Owens said. “We just needed to execute. We’ve had some games go to overtime, so we were trying to avoid that in the fourth. We wanted to slow it down a little bit and wear out the clock. We wanted to get the ball in my hands and get the win.”

That’s exactly what the Raiders did. Owens used his significant speed to get a lay-up. Then, the Raiders played keep-away, working the clock down on Fitch. The strategy worked until Devin Sherwood stole the ball and finished with a lay-in for the Falcons. Bates made sure there wouldn’t be a comeback as he forcefully grabbed a rebound and put it up and in for Harding.

“We came out playing very well the first 2 or 3 minutes of the game,” Franklin said. “We came out with the energy and intensity that we wanted. Then, Austintown Fitch fought back like we expected them to. They’re a great program and a solid team. They went to some zone on us, and we struggled with it. We were able to kind of gut it out toward the end.

“We were trying to buy some time in the fourth to kind of save our legs. We wanted them to come out and guard us man to man. We also wanted to calm our guys down and refocus. If they came out and manned us, perfect. If not, then we would try to run something after a few minutes once we gathered ourselves.”