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Shootout at the Fieldhouse

Struthers goes to regional after outscoring Chardon

Correspondent photo / Eric Fortune The Struthers Wildcats won a Division II district championship on Saturday and advance to the regional at Barberton where they will face Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary on Thursday at 5:30 p.m.

STRUTHERS — Two hours of action. Four players fouling out. Two overtime periods and a total of 226 points, the seventh-highest scoring game in Ohio high school history.

The Struthers Wildcats wanted to get past the pinnacle of the district title game, but no one would have figured it would have been this difficult as they outlasted the Chardon Hilltoppers, 118-108, in a Division II district final on Saturday at the Fieldhouse.

“I’m speechless because that team just kept coming at you, physically,” Struthers coach Michael Wernicki said. “They have shooters. Their coach does an unbelievable job of just putting them in the right spots to be successful. I never thought we would be at this point.

“We had so many different chances, I don’t want to say to put them away, but to just kind of take it out of reach, and they never would let us. Finally, they broke. They broke and we made a couple of free throws down the stretch and that was the difference.”

That it was, as it seemed the Wildcats were poised to end the game in regulation, clinging to a 91-86 lead with 1:03 left. But Struthers missed timely free throws that the Hilltoppers used to their advantage to force overtime at 92-all.

Early on, the Wildcats got all they could ask for, holding a 23-22 lead after one quarter. Keaton Kimble’s 3-pointer to end the opening quarter didn’t present the momentum Struthers needed as it battled back from an early 10-3 deficit.

The Hilltoppers were red hot in the first half, shooting 16-of-32 and building a 14-point lead, 47-33, after a Nathanael Sulka bucket. Sulka gave the Wildcats fits all game long as he finished with a game-high 42 points.

Struthers dug in and finished out the half on a 9-2 run that left them behind 49-42 at the break.

Needing a spark like the Hilltoppers were getting from Sulka, Aidan Slocum put the Wildcats on his back, scoring 12 points in the third quarter. He finished with 31 for Struthers after putting up just nine in the first half.

Slocum was nearly unstoppable at times.

“When you hit those first couple and you’re like, ‘All right this could be something,'” he said. “They keep falling. You have to look to do something every time you touch it. It’s that mentality that kind of just carries yourself through the game. You have to do what you have to do to get the win.”

Struthers took its first lead since the early stages when a Slocum 3-pointer put them ahead 63-60 with 1:40 left in the third quarter.

“He got us to where we needed to be to start the third quarter without a doubt,” Wernicki said. “He made some big shots. He got to the basket. Defensively, he did what he needed to do.”

Slocum’s play continued in the fourth quarter, but the physicality of the game eventually worked in the favor of Chardon as Slocum fouled out with 2:03 left in regulation and Struthers clinging to an 88-82 advantage.

The Wildcats dug deep and didn’t let the game slip away as it headed into overtime.

In came Brandon Washington who scored 26 of his team-high 36 points in the fourth quarter and overtime.

“It’s just next man up,” Washington said. “He went down. Someone had to come up. We had our big men go down and needed someone else to step up. We were struggling rebounding but finally we got the big rebound and we just made our foul shots.”

In the first overtime session, Struthers battled back from an early 95-92 deficit. Washington went to the line and shot 10-of-13 combined in the two overtimes.

“We might have missed 20 free throws tonight,” Wernicki said. “I don’t know, but he did what he needed to do. We’ve worked on free throws and we’ve talked about it. He made just enough tonight to take us to the next level.

Once again the Wildcats were up five, 102-97, with 37.7 seconds left. Chardon’s Josh Bruce’s tossed in a desperation heave from the corner after a missed free throw to send the game to a second overtime tied up at 105-all.

In the second overtime, Struthers found that second wind and built a lead that Chardon could not overcome, shooting 4-of-6 from the field and making 3-of-4 from the charity stripe.

“Anytime you win, especially in the tournament, every game has a different feel to it, and every test is different,” Wernicki said. “We passed a lot of them tonight. Basically, dealing with adversity, starters and key players coming in and out, and then having to play with your backs against the wall and a deficit. When you think you have the game won, and then they push it to another overtime. That can break some teams. I’m just so proud of these guys.

“My other seniors took us home. Brandon, Luke (Barker), Trey (Metzka) took us home. They just kept going and then guys that haven’t been in this moment, Billy Bloom and Keaton Kimble, did a yeoman’s job with that amount of minutes in that type of situation. Those kids should be commended because we don’t win without those kids, and I’m just so proud of every one of them.”

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