Up, up and away
WGH can’t keep energy after dunk, falls to Cards
YOUNGSTOWN — As Warren G. Harding’s Dom Foster drove up court on a breakaway, his eyes lit up.
A supreme athlete being courted by numerous Division I colleges for football, Foster sprung into the air and threw down a vicious dunk to tie a matchup with Cardinal Mooney midway through the third quarter, igniting a delirious Harding bench.
The Cardinals had seen this before, however. Last year, in a very similar situation, the Raiders trailed Mooney by eight late in the game, and a dunk led to a Harding comeback victory.
Things are a little different for both teams this time around, and it showed.
The Raiders couldn’t keep the momentum going in their season opener, with the signs of a team still searching for its identity showing up late in a 60-50 loss to Mooney on Tuesday in Youngstown.
The veteran poise of the Cardinals was as evident as Harding’s inexperience as Mooney withstood the momentum shift of the dunk and pulled away.
“It was the exact opposite (of last year),” Mooney coach Carey Palermo said. “Harding got a dunk, and we kind of unraveled there. We ended up losing by seven or eight at their place. (This year), they got the dunk, tied it up, 40-40, we called timeout, and we just kind of talked about, ‘Hey, this is the biggest part of the game right now. You need to respond, and it’s going to come with getting stops.’ “
Mooney (8-1) got the message.
The Raiders (0-1) didn’t register another point in the quarter and only scored 10 more in the game. The Cardinals’ Michael Pelini outscored them by himself the rest of the way. He finished with 27 points and 13 rebounds and was a force in all phases of the game.
The 6-foot-3 senior was especially productive in the second quarter. Harding outscored Mooney, 20-14, in the second and took a 34-33 lead into halftime, but the lead could have been much bigger if it wasn’t for Pelini, who carried the offense with 10 points. He said he has a close bond with his teammates, and when they’re struggling, they look to him for scoring, just as he does to them.
“If I have a hot hand, my teammates are going to give me the ball,” Pelini said. “If Tom (Fire) or Mick (Hergenrother) or any of them have the hot hand, we know to get them the ball. It’s just whoever has the hot hand.”
It was Pelini on Tuesday.
He made 12-of-19 field goals and continuously hit contested shots when Harding looked to be on the verge of extending its lead. Fire added 16 to keep the Raiders at bay.
The Cardinals’ defense was equally important. They held Harding to six points in the third quarter and took a 46-40 lead to start the final 8 minutes. The Raiders looked to have figured out Mooney’s press defense in the second quarter, but the Cardinals made a few tweaks at halftime, and the zone pressure frustrated Harding in the second half.
“We went up against a team that has their system in,” Harding coach Keelyn Franklin said. “It kind of wore on us over time. We got off to a slow start, then we kind of figured that 1-2-2 (zone) out. They adjusted it a little bit, and I think, and by no means am I making excuses, but their team is just rock solid. They know what they’re going to get out of every player. I don’t know that right now.”
Harding, like all Trumbull County schools, had to shut down all athletic activities during for about a month because of COVID-19 regulations.
Franklin said they were able to practice for about a week prior to the game because of the holidays. He did like the way his team competed. The Raiders remained within striking distance of one of the area’s best teams until the final minutes, and he’s confident once they gain some experience, they can work out the kinks of an offense that has the tools to succeed.
“We showed flashes of what we will be,” Franklin said. “This early in the year, even when you practice all (offseason) and you have your five scrimmages, usually that first game, you don’t look like what you’re going to be, but we showed flashes of what we can be.”
Dom Foster led the Raiders with 11. Tyriq Ivory added 10.
Mooney travels to Austintown to play Fitch on Friday, while Harding hosts Chaney on Friday.