GIRARD — Craig Hannon felt his team needed to play with a certain desperation.
The Girard Indians came into this Northeast 8 Conference matchup with already two losses against them and they couldn’t afford to drop their third halfway through the season.
It took some serious grit overcoming a rough opening quarter to squeak by the Struthers Wildcats, 53-50.
“First of all, give Girard all the credit,” Struthers coach Michael Wernicki said. “They played well. They earned this victory. They were unbelievably physical with us and that took us out of our game. Craig did a great job; the adjustments he made and his game plan. He had a better game plan than I did tonight and his team fought hard and they deserved to win.”
At least early, it looked like the Wildcats (6-3, 5-1) were going to shoot the Indians (8-3, 5-2) out of the gym, running out to an early 18-9 lead after one on 8-of-14 shooting.
“They made things hard on us most of the night,” Hannon said. “I thought in the first quarter we didn’t respond well. They made a ton early that they’ve been making all year. I just thought it was more about what they did to us. They’re physical. They got after us and I’m glad the way we responded in the second quarter but they really punched us in the mouth early.”
The Indians got after it in the second quarter after a Dante Colarossi bucket made it 22-13.
Girard responded with a 14-0 run to make it 27-22 with under two minutes left in the first half.
From there a 6-0 run from Struthers made it 28-27 at the half.
Hannon felt the pace for most of the game was good as the Indians started to match what Struthers was doing in the first half to get back into the game.
“We do want to play fast,” he added. “I thought our execution was really good. I thought we needed a bucket. We got a bucket. It was the kids making a play and putting the ball in the hoop.”
The Indians responded with buckets throughout the third quarter to answer the Wildcats as it was 38-35 in favor of Struthers heading to the fourth quarter.
In the final quarter, Thomas Cardiero came up huge for Girard with 10 his team high 18 points coming in the quarter as the Indians built a 49-44 lead after two straight buckets by him with two minutes to play.
“Thomas is our rock,” Hannon said. “We go to him when we need buckets. We go to him and we need free throws. He’s gonna score a bunch of points for us but it’s all the little things. It was a great matchup tonight, him and Leonard, two great players, two great high school basketball players. It was really fun to watch even as a coach and I thought both guys responded to that challenge.”
Leonard finished with a game-high 20 points and earned the double-double with 12 rebounds as he tried to will the Wildcats to a win with five points in the final quarter that gave Struthers a 42-37 lead early in the fourth.
The Wildcats out rebounded the Indians 37 to 30.
It made the game tricky for Girard as they had to shoot lights out to complete the comeback.
They did, shooting 6-of-9 in the final frame.
“They’re huge,” Hannon said. “It’s gonna be hard to win the rebounding battle against them because of how big they are. You don’t get any second chance points on them. I thought Ronnie Leonard was just phenomenal. He is so impressive to watch. He’s smooth. He handles the ball. He’s strong. I thought he played a great game. He deserves any accolade he gets.”
In the final minute, it turned into a game at the line in which Austin Pozega responded with two critical free throws to make it 51-47 with 29.7 seconds left after a Colarossi 3 made it 49-47.
“I thought Ashton played a great game underneath,” Hannon said. “Those big boys aren’t easy to play against. He hit two huge free throws at a time where he probably didn’t think that ball was coming to him.”
Colarossi thought he was fouled on another 3 point attempt but the foul was called on the floor. He would miss the one and one.
“Those plays, you can sit here and point to singular plays,” Wernicki said. “We can go through a million of them and say that was the play, but it was the overall game. We had opportunities. We were up in the first half. I don’t want to say we had them on the ropes but I think we were up like six or eight.
“We kind of got in our own way a little bit. We made some mistakes. We let them back in and it was a tight game the rest of the way. I’m sure it was a great game to watch. It was a very intense game between two of the better teams in the area. Hopefully, it’ll be a learning experience for us.”
For the Indians, they did what they had to do at the line as they are back in contention for the league title.
“There is still a lot that we need to clean up,” Hannon said. “I thought this was a good start. I thought this was one of our better efforts. This league is going to be up and down. There are a bunch of good teams. We’re going to have to play a lot of big games in order to win the prize.”