By Ryan Buck
It may have been ugly Christmas Sweater Night at Canfield’s James Watkins gymnasium, but there was nothing ugly about the Cardinals’ first-half performance in their 57-42 victory over Austintown Fitch on Friday.
Canfield jumped out to a big first-half advantage and withstood a second-half run from Fitch to improve to 5-1 on the young season.
The Cardinals jumped out to a 16-5 first-quarter lead as forward Jarret Vrabel snatched up rebounds and converted short jumpers. Guard Cole Pryjma’s outside shooting paced Canfield.
“That’s the best we’ve shot the ball in a long time, said Cardinals coach Todd Muckleroy, who earned his first career win over Fitch. “When you’re dialed in long distance like that and rebounding our misses like we were in the first half, that was the reason for the sizeable lead early on.”
Pryjma drilled two 3-pointers in the second quarter to push the lead to 23-7. With under 3 minutes remaining, he stole a Fitch pass at midcourt and converted at the other end for a 27-8 lead.
Fitch coach Brian Beany wasn’t pleased with his team’s start, which saw the Falcons make only one of eight shots in the first eight minutes.
“We were a deer in the headlights in the first half and the first quarter, especially,” Beany said. “They just hit us in the mouth.”
Canfield shot 12 of 25 from the field in the first half, while Fitch, which played without leading scorer Jessie Driver (lingering injuries) for much of the game, needed seven made free throws to supplement just three makes.
It was gut-check time for Fitch, in the midst of a three-game losing streak.
“This coaching staff is not going to let this team quit,” Beany said. “When the chips are down, which they were in the first half, we could’ve got blown out.”
Late in the third quarter and into the early stages of the fourth, Fitch made a run as the Falcons leaned on forward Curtis Beverly inside and his team-high 14 points.
Gabe Chepke’s bucket and ensuing lob pass to a cutting Alex DiFrancesco cut the Fitch deficit to nine with less than six minutes left.
“Those guys showed pride in themselves,” Beany said. “We got some stops right off the get-go and then we converted at the other end. Our two big guys had their best games of the season.”
Canfield was able to stop the bleeding, however, with a few stops and clutch shots.
“I think at that point in time you really have to direct your focus on the clock and really tell them that the clock needs to move constantly,” Muckleroy said. “At the defensive end we need to make them work for every single shot, try not to foul, but play aggressive.”
Vrabel gathered his own missed jumper and banked in a foul line runner to get the lead to 47-36. Conner Kesner’s fast-break lay-in off a block and outlet pass from Brady Clark gave the Cardinals an insurmountable 54-39 lead with just over a minute to go.
Pryjma posted a game-high 16 points. Canfield had the edge in rebounds, 26-22.