By Ryan Buck
LaBrae junior basketball standout Peyton Aldridge is blessed with an abundance of physical gifts.
The six-foot-seven forward has a wingspan ideal for blocking shots and snatching rebounds, a vertical that allows him to seemingly live above the rim, and he runs the court with strides that double most players’.
What makes Aldridge one of the elite players in Ohio and coveted by numerous college programs is his composure in the clutch and savvy decision-making skills. They’ve led the Vikings to two consecutive undefeated seasons in the All-American Conference.
Saturday night at Struthers Fieldhouse, Aldridge’s Vikings escaped with a hard-fought 52-50 victory over Ursuline at the Hope Foundation of the Mahoning Valley’s Hope Classic.
After trading leads in a dynamic fourth quarter, Ursuline had the last shot with seven seconds on the clock.
Desmond Clark’s contested three-point attempt from the left wing glanced off the rim as time expired.
“It gets tense,” LaBrae coach Chad Kiser said. “It’s early in the season still and you don’t get a chance to get all of your game situations in. We’ve practiced a couple last-second plays.
“This is a good test at the end for us to learn.”
The Vikings (2-0), who stormed through last season undefeated before falling in the district tournament, controlled the first half with an efficient offense, run through Aldridge.
“I have trust in my teammates that, if I find them they’re going to knock down those shots,” Aldridge said.
The Irish (0-3) fought back from a cold first half which saw them hit only three of 20 shots.
“We needed one more,” Ursuline coach Keith Gunther said. “In the first half we missed a lot of wide open looks. We got a lot of offensive rebounds, but still, we couldn’t put the ball in the bucket.”
McElroy, often the smallest player on the floor, battled for 21 points to keep the Irish within striking distance.
“As small as he is, he’s tough as nails,” Gunther said.
Freshman Greg Parella’s three-pointer at the outset of the fourth quarter tied the game at 39.
Moments later, Aldridge found teammate John Richards in the corner for a wide-open three to take back the lead.
“If they do double-team him, he won’t force it,” Kiser said of Aldridge. “He’ll find that guy out in the corner or on the wing and kick it, or dump down if the guy’s slipping to the basket. He sees the floor at all times.”
After traded baskets, Aldridge muscled his way past Ursuline football bruiser-turned- forward Khallid Brown to pad the lead 46-41.
McElroy and Ryan Strollo responded with clutch jumpers to stay close. Aided by a turnover and missed free throws from the Vikings, Ursuline still had opportunities to tie or take the lead.
With 30 seconds left and trailing 52-50, Strollo misfired on an off-balance three point attempt.