By Steve wilaj
If there was one play that captured the effort displayed by Austintown Fitch in its 68-58 victory at Howland on Friday, it came with 17 seconds remaining.
Leading 65-58, Fitch’s Alex DiFrancesco was at the foul line for two attempts, while the rest of the Falcons stood in the backcourt to avoid a foul. Missing his second attempt, DiFrancesco charged forward, fought through four Howland rebounders and somehow came away with the ball.
As the Tigers fouled DiFrancesco again, Fitch (3-7) celebrated his effort for the moment, realizing the Falcons had finally put an end to their seven-game losing streak.
“The kids didn’t stop believing and I think you can say that we played with a sense of urgency throughout the game,” Falcons coach Brian Beany said. “I’m proud of the guys and I’m proud of the way that they hung in there.”
Fitch guard Jesse Driver said the Falcons — finally with a healthy squad — sensed a victory was coming their way.
“We went all out tonight,” he said. “Tonight was the night. If it was going to happen, it was going to happen tonight. We’re tired of losing is what it all boils down to.”
Using a 22-11 second quarter advantage, Fitch jumped out to a 34-26 halftime lead.
“You watched us sleepwalk through the first half until we finally decided to play basketball,” Howland coach Bill Bogan said.
While the Falcons still led 43-36 heading into the fourth period, increased intensity by the Tigers (3-8) helped shrink the Fitch lead to five points midway through the quarter.
“We challenged them as young men,” Bogan said. “We challenged them to get up and play with some passion and some heart and compete.”
Howland got as close as 60-57 with 1:07 remaining, until a Driver free throw and an Austin Hogan layup gave Fitch some room to breathe.
“We had a big lead and Howland chopped it down — give them credit,” Beany said. “We could have folded, but the kids persevered through it and made some big free throws down the stretch.”
A balanced attack led the way for the Falcons, who have had trouble scoring points recently. Driver notched 17 points, Quincy Higgins had 15 and Hogan scored 13.
“This was his first game that he’s almost 100 percent,” Beany said of Driver, who also grabbed nine rebounds. “So he’s been kind of off and on during the losing streak, but he had some nice pep in his step tonight.”
Driver said the victory can serve as a “springboard” toward the rest of the season.
“Tonight we put the ball in the hoop, we swung the ball and everybody got shots off,” he said. “I think the sky’s the limit for this team.”
Howland had its two-game win streak snapped with the loss.
Arbie Murray led the Tigers with 22 points, while John-Mark Weisman added 14.
“You can’t do it for just a quarter of basketball,” Bogan said. “You’ve got to do it for four quarters and you’ll be a good basketball team.”