By ERIC FORTUNE
For the Star Beacon
It took a timeout for Ryan Fitch to regain his team’s focus as they were soulless for the first four minutes of the opening quarter Friday night.
It got the Pymatuning Valley Lakers back into a game that they didn’t hold many advantages as they stuck around all game, but the uphill battle was a bit too steep to climb as they fell 68-54 to the Ursuline Fighting Irish in a Division III district semifinal.
“I think early on, we were soft around the rim,” Fitch said. “When I called the timeout early, that was the message I sent to them. We were playing a little too weak — a little too weak physically and a little too soft.”
Trailing 11-2 after back-to-back buckets from Desmond McElroy midway through that opening quarter, a lashing from Fitch reenergized his players as they rattled off 9-0 run over the next three-plus minutes.
It took a bucket from Ryan Strollo with less than two minutes to play to finally seize the momentum back the Lakers had clearly captured.
Strollo (17 points) along with McElroy (21 points) seemed to have that big shot constantly throughout the game whenever Pymatuning Valley looked to have answers with numerous runs in the second and third quarters.
“We talked that we needed to get help off the guards,” Fitch said. “We didn’t want to help too much because it leaves it the two big guys open underneath. Their guards are just quick. We did a decent job of containing. I give credit to Dez. He hit some 3s early that forced us to stretch our defense.”
Trailing 20-11 going into the second quarter, the Lakers continued to hang around and got a big 3 from Austin Nowakowski to make it 24-18, but then it was the inside play of both Kevin Jackson and Khallid Pierce that gave Ursuline (12-11) second-chance opportunities and halted any for the Lakers (18-6).
The discrepancy in rebounding was astounding with the Irish having 20 as a team compared to just six for the Lakers.
It also halted in the end, PV getting to the line as the Irish got to the line 18 more times and got nine more points from the charity stripe overall.
“If you don’t attack the rim, you’re not going to get fouls called,” Fitch said. “You can’t play passively and expect to get fouls called. I think we did a better job in the second half because we were more aggressive going to the rim.”
Still, Ursuline coach Keith Gunther expected more out of his team despite those glaring statistics and his team’s 34-25 advantage at the half.
“It wasn’t pretty,” he said. “A win and advance — that’s all that matters. I’m not happy how we played. I thought we had a couple of chances to knock them out of here up 14 with a chance to extend it out.
“We had bad defensive possessions and threw the ball around when on offense. Our kids looked at their kids and with our size and athleticism and took them lightly. Overall, you have to take your hat off to them, they played well. Ryan did a great coaching job. I think he kept his players poised and they never panicked.”
After the Irish extended their lead to 14, the Lakers again dug their way out of another hole and were able to get it within five, 51-46 in the early part of the fourth quarter, thanks to the play of Ratliff and Cross, who led the Lakers with 21 and 16 points, respectfully.
“We tried to tell them, we scouted them three times and Ratliff was a player and Cross was a player,” Gunther said. “They proved that they are. I thought defensively, we were awful.
“Offensively, Ratliff and Cross, the sets that they ran were really good. They did a good job of screening. I thought at times we took them out of what they wanted to do. I don’t think we did it the complete game. I don’t think we ever fully put it together.”
In the end, it wasn’t meant to be as the Lakers got it no closer and were outscored 17-8 over the final four minutes of the game.
“We knew we were going to be in a battle tonight,” Fitch said. “Ursuline’s very athletic. They’re physical. They’re tough.They have some great athletes that can get the ball to the rim. They have a couple of kids that can shoot it. We had to come out and play almost perfect just to be around at the end of the game.
“My kids did a tremendous job of battling.”
Fortune is a freelance writer from McDonald.