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GJR's defense denies star his curtain call



Published: Mon, February 18, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



George Junior Republic coach Bob McConnell said the Sports Illustrated cover subject settled for too many jumpers.

By BRIAN RICHESSON

VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF

YOUNGSTOWN -- Much of the buzz ringing throughout a sold-out Beeghly Center on Sunday was for Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary star LeBron James.

The 6-foot-7 junior has gotten Ohio's attention the past few years, but lately it has been showcased on a national stage at a greater intensity.

In his first game since Sports Illustrated draped him on its cover last week, James scored a game-high 20 points and grabbed 12 rebounds against George Junior Republic.

Under average: Problem was for James and the Irish, that wasn't enough -- his point total was 10 under his average -- as the Tigers pulled a 58-57 upset in overtime.

"I told our guys before the game that we're going to hold him to 20," George Junior Republic coach Bob McConnell said. "I walked around the corner and told our assistants that we were dreaming."

James, who a week earlier had dropped 36 points on national power Oak Hill Academy (Va.), was held in check by the Tigers, who limited him to just eight points after halftime.

"That's what we wanted to do," McConnell said. "We felt if we took the ball out of his hands, doubled him every time he touched it, didn't give him any cheap ones in transition, then we'd be in business."

Undertaking the responsibility of guarding James was George Junior Republic senior Cannon White and sophomore Tyrae Denmark. It was Denmark who handled the chore most of the second half.

"I just tried to stay in front of him and not let him go past me," Denmark said. "It was hard, but my teammates made it easier by helping me."

The Tigers' ability to prevent James from scoring in transition was the biggest factor defensively, McConnell said.

Strategy: "Four or five of his hoops [in the first half] were off steals or in transition," he said. "In transition a couple of times in the second half, we fouled him on purpose before he got to the rim."

McConnell felt that James, who shot 8-of-19 from the field, relied on too many outside shots, thus making it easier for the Tigers to defend him.

"He can go by somebody any time he wants to, but tonight he settled for too many jumpers," McConnell said. "He could have gotten us in serious foul trouble if he would have gone to the basket."

St. Vincent-St. Mary coach Dru Joyce II has noticed the effect of the national spotlight on James and his team.

"The pressure is beginning to weigh on them. These are 17-year-olds," Joyce II said. "No team other than Oak Hill Academy is under the pressure we are. The microscope is intense.

"If I'm at George Junior and my opponent is on Sports Illustrated, that's going to pump me up," Joyce said.

George Junior Republic aided its cause by forcing the action and being the aggressor.

That was evident most with three minutes remaining in regulation when Tigers senior Benson Callier stuffed James hard in the lane on a play that brought 6,700 fans to their feet.

"I was dreaming of that moment all of last night," Callier said of an opportunity to make a play on the Irish star.

Publicity's effect: James was sprawled on the court as his mother, Gloria, ran onto the floor to dispute the play, which she believed was a foul. She was promptly directed to take her seat by her son.

"It gets you pumped up," Denmark said of playing against the Sports Illustrated cover subject. "You want to win and you know you've got a chance to win, so we just played real hard and it worked out the way we wanted it to."

James wasn't the only factor Sunday; St. Vincent-St. Mary hurt itself with poor shooting. The Irish shot 7-of-33 (21 percent) from the field after halftime, and 23-of-69 (33 percent) for the game.

"We got lucky tonight," McConnell said. "Normally when you take the ball out of LeBron's hands, their other guys step up and make shots. Their guys didn't step up in the second half and make shots."

richesson@vindy.com




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