The Irish begin preparing for state tournament with a 49-39 victory.
AKRON -- When Ursuline High School girls basketball coach Sean Durkin drew up this season's schedule, he was either out of his mind or a genius.
With the goal of loading the back end of the slate with games that would prepare his squad for another postseason tournament run, he might have outdone himself.
Whether the strategy will work won't be known for several weeks. But, so far, so good.
The Irish began a brutal stretch of games -- including four of their last five regular-season contests on the road -- on a positive note, knocking off ninth-ranked (Division II) Akron Hoban 49-39 on Thursday night.
"We wanted the end of our schedule to be as tough as possible to prepare us for the tournament," Durkin said. "But maybe not this tough.
"Hoban is a strong team, and it was nice to start this grind of a schedule with a win. We're going to be challenged every night out the rest of the way, and I think we responded to the challenge tonight."
How tough is Ursuline's schedule in the next two weeks? Try playing at Kennedy Catholic, at West Branch, home against Rayen and at Boardman.
That's three state-ranked teams and a perennial Pennsylvania power. Win or lose, the Irish are trying to be tournament-ready.
Things couldn't have gone much better for Ursuline against Hoban. The contest was virtually close for two quarters, as neither team led by more than seven points. The Irish never trailed, but weren't able to pull away, either.
Ursuline's defense was outstanding in the opening quarter, as the Irish grabbed four steals in the first 8 minutes, converting them into seven points. Vannessa Dickson led the way with seven points and two steals, as Ursuline led 13-9 after one quarter.
Hoban, sparked by Alex D'Amico, rallied from a seven-point deficit in the second quarter to tie the score at 15-15 and 21-21.
That's when Ursuline's Tyra Grant took things over. The junior led a 9-4 run with a pair of 3-pointers. The outburst extended Ursuline's advantage to 34-25 after three quarters and turned the tide for good.
"Tyra just dominated the game," Durkin said. "That's why she's one of the best players in the state.
"I thought our other girls stepped up as well. We were really being aggressive offensively, and on defense our 2-3 zone surprised Hoban a little bit. We're really trying to forge our own identity with this team, and I think we went a long way in doing that tonight."
Cierra Bennett scored with 6:33 to go in the fourth quarter to give Ursuline its first double-digit lead at 42-32. The Knights could only get within eight the rest of the way.
"I saw a lot of good things out there tonight," Durkin said. "These last few games will be very competitive and we're hoping they will give us an edge going into postseason play."