The Raiders seem to be getting back on track.
By BRIAN RICHESSON
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
AUSTINTOWN -- The Warren Harding High basketball team has continued to grieve since the passing of coach Frank Bubba.
But that healing process was helped along Tuesday as the Raiders took a major step toward reaching their season goals. They defeated Austintown Fitch 57-44 to capture the Steel Valley Conference title.
Harding (15-3, 6-1) had clinched a share of the title with its win, but successfully defended the SVC outright when Boardman beat Ursuline Tuesday.
"I felt a tremendous amount of pressure to go after the SVC," interim coach Garry Rowland said. "That's something that Coach Bubba really wanted. Hopefully, we can deliver."
They did just that. In doing so, the Raiders revealed their resilience and focus amid adversity.
Results: "We've all gone through that," Rowland said of losing a loved one. "You start to question the value of things, and I didn't see that burning fire in their eyes like I did before. It's just taken a little bit of time. Hopefully it's back. Usually the results speak for themselves."
Rowland said he's seen the Raiders increase their level of play, starting in the second half of last Friday's victory over Boardman and continuing Tuesday against the Falcons.
"I told them it's no longer about Xs and Os. It's about getting out and playing," Rowland said.
Now that Warren Harding has captured the SVC crown, it now will prepare for the tournament. The Raiders finish their regular season Friday against Canton GlenOak and Feb. 22 against Ursuline.
"We want to play in the regionals," Rowland said. "We've got a pretty decent draw in Cleveland. I feel like we're starting to get the momentum back that we had a couple of weeks ago."
Took control: That momentum carried into the game at the outset against Fitch, as Harding gained control with a 17-4 lead with 2 minutes, 32 seconds remaining in the first quarter.
"When teams are going to be patient against us, you've got to come out quick, get on the board and get ahead," Rowland said.
The Raiders held their lead throughout the game by eventually solving Fitch's zone defense and holding off the Falcons' rally.
"Some teams don't think we can hold the ball. They think we're just going to run up and down the court," said Harding junior Danny Stella, who scored 10 points. "We showed everybody that we can do whatever it takes to win the game."
Fitch (10-7, 2-4) got to within six points (30-24) on back-to-back 3-pointers by senior Shawn Barber in the third quarter, but the Raiders pulled away for the win.
Noticeable: Fitch coach Gary Conroy has noticed Harding's brilliant play in various stretches of recent games.
"If they play like that for 32 minutes, they will not be the No. 7 team in Ohio," Conroy said. "They'll be No. 1."
Junior Prescott Burgess had 17 points and nine rebounds for Harding, and senior Shelby Chaney also grabbed nine rebounds.
"We expected to be in this place this time of the year," Stella said. "We're happy, but we're not overly excited. We want to get ready for the districts."
The Falcons got 12 points from senior Kevin Johnson and 14 rebounds from junior Greg Mayes.