By ERIC FORTUNE
For the Star Beacon
There was a great beginning and a great ending, but in between, the story was roughly what Ryan Fitch expected — a struggle.
Still, when Pymatuning Valley needed to make plays, they did and escaped with a 68-61 victory in a Division III sectional matchup with the Cardinal Huskies.
“We watched them a couple of times live and they’re physical,” Fitch said. “They shoot it really well. (Jake DiBlasio) is a big kid. We knew we were going to be in a ball game all night.
“Actually, I’m surprised we won by seven. I thought it would come down to the team with the ball on the last possession.”
At least early on, it looked like the Lakers (18-5) were going to run away with the game as Austin Nowakowski couldn’t miss it felt like from behind the 3-point arc as he sank three of his game high six 3s en route to 15 opening-quarter points. He, along with Tim Cross, led the Lakers with 24 points a piece.
It allowed Pymatuning Valley to race out to a 10-point advantage, 23-13.
“We didn’t play good defense tonight,” Cardinal coach Jon Cummins said. “We let them set the tempo a lot of times. We wanted an up tempo style and that’s what we got, but we didn’t play defense to stop it. The first quarter, they scored 23 points. How do you give up 23 points in the first quarter?”
Though, as Fitch foretold in his own thinking of how the game would progress, Jason Farmwald would answer back with a 3 before the buzzer to get it within seven and give the Lakers trouble throughout the second and third quarter.
He was equally as impressive as Nowakowski with 11 first-quarter points as he finished 24 points.
“He’s quick,” Fitch said. “He’s really quick. He’s got a quick first step. We wanted to try and send him to his left because it’s not his strong hand. He can still get by because he’s so quick. He’s a very nice player. He made some shots early.”
For much of the second quarter, the Huskies (11-12) and Lakers traded baskets to make it 33-23 in favor of the Lakers at the 3:34 mark before the Huskies got on a bit of a roll to get it within six, 37-31 at the half.
The Huskies made it a point to not allow Nowakowski to beat them with his shooting and in the third quarter, they found success at limiting the screens the Lakers were throwing at them that got Nowakowski open multiple times in the first half.
“We wanted to get a hand up on him,” Cummins said. “I knew that he couldn’t create his own shot, but he could shoot if you left him open and that’s what he did in the first half. He knocked down five 3s in the first half.
“I’m not taking anything away from his skill, but there are strengths and weaknesses, and his strength is standing out there shooting 3s. So we decided to know where he’s at and put a hand up. We weren’t going to try and deny him the ball, but just wanted to know where he’s at.”
Heading into the final quarter, the momentum looked to be headed toward the Huskies as they got their first lead of the game after Jon Thompson split a pair of free throws with less than three minutes left in the third quarter and trailed 46-44 heading into the decisive quarter.
Instead, much of what worked well early for the Lakers started working again as they made a conscience decision to really contest the shots of the Huskies and limit them to just one shot.
It couldn’t have gone more according to plan as the first bucket for the Huskies didn’t come until the 3:02 mark, which by that time, the Lakers had opened a 56-44 advantage.
“Our guys did a good job of doing that,” Fitch said. “We got beat a lot early on second shots and transition buckets. We were finally able to stop their transition game and limit them to one possession, one shot.”
Then finally, after Cardinal got it within six with under two minutes to play, Cross would calmly sink 12-of-14 free throws down the stretch to preserve the victory.
“It was a team win tonight,” Fitch said. “Austin got us going early. He hit some big 3s and a lot of them in bunches. When he gets hot, he can knock down four, five, six in a row. (Quintin) Ratliff made some big plays for us. (Chase) Thurber and Grant Nowakowski boxed out well. They played their role. Cross made some big plays down the stretch. So it really was a team win.”
Fortune is a freelance writer from McDonald.