STRUTHERS — Both Harding and Struthers offered each other something the other needed to see in preparation for the tournament.
Struthers needed to see a team as athletic as the Raiders and Harding needed to see a team as big as the Wildcats.
Despite riding a very strong start to the game, Struthers wasn’t able to hang onto its lead as Tyriq Ivory guided the Raiders with 37 points to spark the team to a 75-68 victory.
“I haven’t coached against a kid like him since I’ve been here,” Struthers coach Michael Wernicki said. “We can dissect this game all you want, but the kid had almost 40 and we don’t have an answer for him. … You get a kid with 40, then it’s tough. Credit to them.
“Say wherever you want about this play, that play, this foul, we couldn’t guard that kid and good for them. They earned their victory.”
The Wildcats rode into Saturday’s game hot. All momentum was in their favor after closing the first quarter with a 22-10 lead.
Harding has been in this position before. In fact, they were in this same position just 24 hours prior in their matchup against Austintown Fitch.
Fitch held an 18-10 lead, but like on Saturday, Harding just kept chipping away.
“That’s two good teams battling it out,” Harding Coach Keelyn Franklin said. “They got out to a lead on us, similar to what we dealt with yesterday against Fitch. We just had to battle back. I kept telling the guys to cut it to five or six and a half, and we’ll be fine.
“Luckily, we got it to six and just, you know, we just just chipped away, stayed the course. They made some shots, we were able to respond and we made some big plays down the stretch when we needed to.”
Struthers had a noticeable size advantage, which helped them early, but once Harding was able to figure out how to counter it, the tides started to turn.
For reference, the Raiders’ tallest player, 6-foot-4 sophomore Duncan Moy, would be the fourth-tallest player on the Wildcats roster.
While shaken up from the Fitch game the night prior,, Moy finished the evening with 13.
“Once we realized what they were doing, which was playing bully ball, they were putting those 6-foot-6 kids on the block and just saying ‘We’re bigger than you,’ so we had to get that backside help,” Franklin said. “When they catch it, just try to dig in and either make them kick it out or make it a tough one over to people, because in the first half it was wide open layups. We just wanted to dig in and make it tough as much as possible.”
And it was definitely tough.
Struthers’ biggest players, 6-foot-7 Sal Shaffer and 6-foot-6 players Nick Delgratta and Ronnie Leonard led the team with 21, 18 and 18 points respectively.
With exception to a couple wide open dunks in the first quarter, they weren’t easy buckets by any means.
The Raiders being able to ramp up the pressure on the defensive end saved the team after falling in that early hole.
“They turned up the pressure defensively,” Wernicki said. “We turned it over, (Ivory) got some run-outs and then we were always on our heels. It’s like the old (Mike) Tyson thing. ‘Everybody’s got a game plan until you get punched in the mouth,’ and once he really got going we didn’t have an answer for him.
“My kids fought. I’m proud of them. We fought and we fought. It was a three-point game with 22.8 seconds to go and we were right there. We had our chances.”
Ivory had a stellar weekend for the Raiders, potting 25 points against Fitch and then 37 against the Wildcats.
The Raider senior has been determined to cap off this season right.
“I feel like I say that every interview about him, but he’s locked in,” Franklin said. “That’s what we talked about with him is when you’re locked in, these are the type of nights you can have and you can do them on a consistent basis.
“He’s electric. He’s an elite type of athlete, and he has that hunger. He is in his senior year and he knows he’s one of our guys. He just wants to do something special this year and you can see it out there.”
The Raiders move to 6-4 on the season. Up next, they face a tough Ursuline team on Tuesday.
Struthers has been one of the most battle-tested teams in the area. The 8-4 Wildcats travel to Hubbard on Tuesday in hopes of getting back in the W column.
With the tournament looming, seeing a player like Ivory in January can only help them going forward. If the Wildcats can make a return to the district finals, they’ll be seeing more players like Ivory.
“We need to continue to get better attacking pressure, especially in the second half, but we’re not going to see another kid like that unless we get back to the district championship and beyond,” Wernicki said. “We’re playing great competition with Villa Angela-St Joseph last Saturday and Harding tonight.”