Ursuline coach Keith Gunther said he didn’t like the fourth quarter of Friday night’s 67-57 victory over St. Thomas Aquinas, but he has to be pleased with the big picture: that his Irish have now won seven of their last nine games.
“The first three quarters were really good and we were hoping to build on the St. Ed’s game [a 79-69 loss at Lakewood St. Edward on Tuesday night]. When we played a great three quarters [against Aquinas], I thought, ‘We could build on this for the tournament.’ But in the fourth we relaxed, defensively, and had a bit of a letdown.”
Even if Ursuline lost by 10 and gave St. Ed’s “a heck of a battle,” in Gunther’s words, the Irish only took three-quarters advantage of it on Friday and let Aquinas back in the ballgame.
After leading by 15 to 18 points, the Knights (9-9) pulled with five at 62-57 when Anthony Snyder made a 3-pointer.
But Kevin Jackson’s putback of Mark Hughes’ missed goal attempt with 1:25 remaining returned Ursuline (7-8) to a more comfortable position before Preston Williams and Ryan Strollo finished off the scoring.
Strollo had a game-high 21 points, Kevin Jackson had 16 points and 18 rebounds and Williams also had 16 points for the Irish, who made 27 of 54 shots to Aquinas’ 20 of 60.
“We sagged off of them,” Gunther said of his team’s defensive strategy in the final 1:25. “We told our guys to keep an arm’s length and don’t foul. We tried to take away their penetration and then they struggled a little bit. They missed some shots and that changed the game a little.”
Although Hughes’ missed layup wasn’t part of the plan, Jackson corrected it at a critical time.
Gunther said the plan was to stall and draw fouls with the intention of going to the free throw line.
“Luckily, KJ got that rebound like he was doing all night. He was big for us tonight. Ryan hit some big shots and Preston played pretty decent for us.”
Aquinas coach Matt Hackenberg assessed his team’s effort.
“It was a different level of physicality than we’ve seen all year and that’s been allowed to play,” he said. “Once we adjusted to that, we played fairly even with them, but we were too timid at the beginning and we weren’t ready for their level of strength and toughness.”
What was the crux of the battle?
“They were denying us and we couldn’t free ourselves to get open,” Hackenberg said. “It was their physical play and strength of them not letting us do anything that we wanted to do on the offensive end.”
Gunther repeated his statement about the second half: “We were up by 15 [49-34 on Desmond McElroy’s basket], but then had a spurt where we couldn’t put it in the bucket. They got back in it because we eased our aggressiveness.”