By STEVE WILAJ
Friday night with Ursuline visiting, the East High gymnasium was filled to capacity. A rowdy crowd, filled with excitement and eager to renew the Youngstown rivalry, was ready to explode.
In other words, it was just the type of atmosphere that concerned East coach Dennis Simmons.
“It was actually one of the things I was kind of worried about,” Simmons said. “But we handled it well.”
Indeed they did, as the Panthers downed Ursuline, 71-50, to close out the regular season for both teams. It was East’s fifth consecutive victory against the Irish.
“We handled [the atmosphere] a little better than we did against Mooney,” Simmons said in reference to his team’s 55-53 loss to the Cardinals earlier in the season. “So we’ll take it.”
The packed crowd was left to sit on their hands for the first quarter, as both teams struggled early. East (16-6) took an early 9-5 advantage after the first quarter, but didn’t settle in until the second period, said Panthers forward Deontay Scott.
“We just had to stay focused and keep our mental toughness,” he said.
In fact, both teams adapted to the atmosphere in the second quarter. Ursuline (10-11) battled back to cut the deficit to 25-22 heading into halftime.
However, then it was East’s time to play.
“I’ve come to realize we’re a second-half team,” Simmons said. “With Senior Night, guys had a lot of emotions going on, nerves and butterflies. It was an ugly game in the first half, but definitely better for us in the second half.”
Sticking to their label, the Panthers outscored Ursuline, 18-8, in the third quarter and 28-20 in the fourth quarter.
“Coach came in the locker room at halftime and hollered at us a little,” said Scott, one of six East seniors. “He said we had to pick it up, so we all put our game faces on and picked it up.”
Scott paced the Panthers with 20 points and 10 rebounds. That marked his second dominating performance against the Irish. In a previous meeting on Jan. 18, the 6-foot-4 forward had 19 points and 11 boards.
“I’m not a cocky player, but you can say that [it’s a good matchup],” Scott said. “I just crashed the offensive boards — that’s my strength and what I like to do. I can rebound against anybody.”
Taylor Johnson also had a strong game for East, scoring 18 points. Marquis Cotton also added 12 points. Defensively, the Panthers forced 20 Irish turnovers.
“We want to play at a certain pace,” Simmons said. “If we can get teams to play at our pace, most teams in this area aren’t used to playing at that pace. So that’s one of our advantages.”
Ursuline was led by Ryan Strollo’s 12 points. The Irish begin their tournament play Tuesday against Champion (3-19) at Howland High School.
Meanwhile, East begins its tournament action on Monday against Boardman (3-18) at Alliance High School.
“The guys are looking forward to Monday,” Simmons said. “They’re ready for the second season. Their motto is, ‘Our season starts now.’ ”