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By BRIAN RICHESSON



Published: Sat, February 16, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



By BRIAN RICHESSON

VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF

LeBron James has helped put the Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary basketball team on a national scale.

James, the 6-foot-7 junior guard/forward who graces the cover of this week's Sports Illustrated, averages 30 points and 8.3 rebounds per game.

He's taken the Irish to No. 4 in USA Today's Super 25 rankings, and everybody is tabbing him as a future NBA first-round draft pick.

But James hasn't led St. Vincent-St. Mary to the past two Division III state championships by himself. What makes the Irish even more difficult to beat is the play of his teammates, whom James makes better through his uncanny floor awareness.

George Junior Republic coach Bob McConnell knows this. In fact, he witnessed it firsthand last season in Canton, where the Irish pulled away from his team for a 66-53 victory.

"The kid who killed us last year was Romeo Travis," said McConnell, whose Tigers (21-2) face St. Vincent-St. Mary (15-2) on Sunday at a sold-out Beeghly Center.

"Everybody knows how good LeBron is, but those other guys are Division I [college talents]."

Travis, a 6-6 junior forward, had 18 points and 12 rebounds against George Junior Republic last season to support James' 24 points, seven rebounds, seven assists, two blocks and two steals.

Other starters: Junior point guard Dru Joyce III balances his quickness with pinpoint shooting, while McConnell also worries about 6-5 senior guard Sekou Lewis. The other starter is 5-10 senior guard Chad Mraz.

"Now that they've added another good player [Lewis], it makes it even more difficult to put [designed defenses] on James because they have so many weapons," McConnell said. "You can't focus your attention on one or two guys. You pretty much have to be aware of all their good players."

But George Junior Republic also has enough talent to make Sunday's game intriguing.

The Tigers, ranked sixth this week in Pennsylvania's big-school division, counter with 6-6 senior forward Benson Callier, who averages over 20 points and 10 rebounds per game. Callier poured in 42 points against Warren Harding earlier this season.

"He's put us on his back," said McConnell, the seventh-year coach. "He's played well since Christmas. He's stepped up in big games. He'll have to have a big game this weekend or we won't have a chance."

The Tigers' other dangerous big man is 6-6 senior Shaun Simpson, whom McConnell calls "as athletic a big guy as I've ever had. He shoots good from the 3. He's mid-to-major Division I [college] talent."

Only returner: Senior forward Cannon White is George Junior Republic's only returner from last season who received considerable playing time.

The Tigers' point guard is freshman John Brown, while sophomore Tyrae Denmark is the other starting guard.

"They're very athletic," St. Vincent-St. Mary coach Dru Joyce II said of the Tigers. "They really get after you. They're definitely the kind of team that, if you allow them to control the tempo, you'll have a hard time beating them."

That's exactly how the Irish beat their opponents -- with intense, swarming pressure that results in easy layups.

"The best defense we can have is not turning the ball over on offense," McConnell said. "That [turnovers] is what broke the game open last year."

George Junior Republic and St. Vincent-St. Mary were tied 13-13 after the first quarter last season, but the Irish took control in the second quarter for a 31-17 halftime lead.

The Tigers got to within five points in the fourth quarter before St. Vincent-St. Mary prevailed.

"The difference this year is we're not a great fullcourt press team; we're more of a defensive halfcourt team," McConnell admitted. "We're getting better at trapping, but we want to go up and down the floor and score in the 70s and 80s."

McConnell said his Tigers pass the ball as well as any team he's had, and they defend and rebound well, too. They will discover Sunday whether that will be enough.

"Our goal is to win another state championship -- not to defend one, but to win another," Joyce II said. "You always want your kids to get better, and the way for them to get better is finding the best teams to challenge them."

richesson@vindy.com




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