The Tigers came from way behind to upset the nationally ranked team in overtime.
By BRIAN RICHESSON
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
YOUNGSTOWN -- The shirt of George Junior Republic basketball coach Bob McConnell was soaked in sweat. It's easy to understand why.
McConnell's team made perhaps its biggest statement in the history of the program Sunday in front of 6,700 fans at overflowing Beeghly Center.
The Tigers came from behind to stun nationally-ranked Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary 58-57 in overtime and hand the Irish rare back-to-back losses.
"We wanted to play this kind of team in this kind of atmosphere," McConnell said. "We've been on a roll as far as playing good at the end of the season.
"If we would have lost in overtime, we would have gotten everything out of the game that we wanted," he said. "But we showed that we could play with them, and that's all that matters."
St. Vincent-St. Mary coach Dru Joyce II credited George Junior Republic's play but admitted his own team's shortcomings.
"No disrespect toward George Junior, but we had opportunities to win the game and we didn't get it done," Joyce said.
Seven-point lead: St. Vincent-St. Mary (15-3), two-time defending Division III state champion and the fourth-ranked team nationally, led 50-43 with 1 minute, 40 seconds remaining in regulation before George Junior Republic (22-2) charged back.
The Tigers scored the next seven points, including a clutch shot by senior Shaun Simpson with 28 seconds remaining, to force overtime.
In the extra session, sophomore Tyrae Denmark sank a 3-pointer with 1:30 to play that broke a 55-55 tie and gave George Junior Republic the lead for good.
"I just slid to the corner and I was wide open. I hadn't hit a shot all day," said Denmark, who finished with eight points and 10 rebounds. "It went down."
St. Vincent-St. Mary, which had lost one week earlier to national power Oak Hill Academy (Va.), had several opportunities in the closing seconds of overtime but failed to capitalize.
"The bottom line is we didn't make shots," Joyce II said. "We shot 5-for-29 from the 3-point line. That's terrible."
Had opportunities: At the end of overtime, Irish senior Chad Mraz missed a 3-pointer with 16 seconds left, and Simpson rebounded. George Junior Republic then missed the front end of three one-and-one foul shot opportunities.
SV-SM junior LeBron James grabbed the first miss but had the ball stolen by senior Chris Fiore (11 points).
Senior Benson Callier rebounded the second miss, allowing the Tigers to retain possession.
James rebounded the third miss, only to have his last-second desperation heave from beyond halfcourt clang off the shot clock as time expired.
"Coach said that we needed to work harder. This is our time, our moment to shine, and we needed to take advantage of it," Callier said.
In a rematch of last year's game, won 66-53 by the Irish in Canton, St. Vincent-St. Mary broke away from George Junior Republic on Sunday for a comfortable second-quarter lead.
The Irish built their largest lead to 15 points (34-19) with three minutes remaining in the first half and led 36-27 at halftime.
Using its quickness and athleticism, George Junior Republic rallied in the third quarter as it gradually became the aggressor.
"Our schedule is starting to take its toll," Joyce said. "We play teams all over the country, but these last three weeks we've played one game a week. That's not enough to keep a rhythm."
Tigers comeback: Eight straight points -- four each by freshman John Brown and Fiore -- cut the Tigers' deficit to four points (41-37) with 22 seconds to play in the third quarter.
"John's capable of hitting some big shots late in the game," McConnell said of Brown, who, despite 10 turnovers, had a team-high 15 points and 10 rebounds. "He came through huge for a 16-year-old freshman."
St. Vincent-St. Mary junior guard Dru Joyce III hit a 3-pointer at the third-quarter buzzer, seemingly shifting momentum back to the Irish.
But George Junior Republic, which outrebounded the Irish 45-38, stayed close enough in the fourth quarter to make its move.
"I'll always remember this. I always dreamed of this moment," said Callier, who added 14 points for the Tigers.
James finished with 20 points and 12 rebounds, while Mraz added 11 points and junior Romeo Travis 10 for the Irish.