In a back-and-forth match up with Dayton Thurgood Marshall in the Division II state championship game Saturday at Ohio State’s Schottenstein Center, Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary edged the Cougars 59-53 for the fifth state title in school history.
COLUMBUS – Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary’s most notable alum – NBA superstar LeBron James – was on hand Saturday evening to watch his alma mater in the Division II basketball state championship game.
And the Fighting Irish didn’t disappoint.
In a back-and-forth match up with Dayton Thurgood Marshall in front of 11,160 fans at Ohio State’s Schottenstein Center, SVSM edged the Cougars 59-53 for its fifth state championship in school history.
The Irish have made the state Final Four nine times.
SVSM (23-4) trailed 29-23 at the half but amped up its defense outscoring Marshall 35-24 in the second half forcing 16 turnovers in the game, including seven steals.
“When the game got on the line, we challenged our guys at halftime to play St. V basketball,” SVSM head coach Dru Joyce said.
Like in the state semifinal win over Columbus DeSales Friday, senior forward Daylen Harrison and senior guard Michael Hammonds led the way for the Irish. Harrison paced SVSM with 21 points and four rebounds and Hammonds added 11 points and three steals.
“You can’t win without senior leadership and that is what these guys provided,” said Joyce.
Trailing 47-45 midway through the fourth quarter, Hammonds scored four straight points, including one bucket created by a forced Harrison turnover, to give the Irish a 49-47 lead late in the game.
“Basketball is a game of runs and (that run) helped us get the momentum back, which I think helped us pull it off,” Hammonds said. “We stepped up and played with some heart in the second half and that is what won us the game.”
In the final 2:21, SVSM outscored Marshall 11-1 hitting 5-of-7 free throws.
Sophomore forward Jakarr Sampson contributed 11 points and nine rebounds.
Marshall junior point guard Juwan Staten, a Dayton verbal, led all stat-getters with 28 points.
“The whole game all I thought was (winning a) state championships,” said Staten. “It is something that my dad says a lot – that great players step up in big games so I just kept telling myself that.”
But 20 of his points came in the first half, including 4-of-4 from three-point range. SVSM focused in on him in the second half and disrupted his rhythm holding him to just eight points.
“I knew that would be their goal,” Staten said. “Any time you score 20 points in the first half that has to be the goal of the other team. They did a great job. They wore me down but I knew I couldn’t back away from it.”
Said Joyce, “(Juwan) is a great player. He was hot but he was going to cool off. Those jump shots he made in the first half – he isn’t going to make those in the second half if we wear him down and we pressure him.”
Staten struggled from the free throw line finishing 2-of-6 from the charity stripe including a dismal 1-of-4 in the last two minutes of the game both with a 52-49 lead and trailing 54-52.
After the game, Staten’s right hand was iced up from an apparent sprained thumb ligament but he said that wasn’t what affected his free throws.
“The only thing affected the free throws at the end was me,” he said
Marshall (22-5) also got 15 points from DeAngelo Gates.
The Cougars were without second leading scorer Greg Gainey for the game, who was nursing two sprained ankles.
“On each day (of the state tournament) he came out and tried to see if he was physically able to go and he just wasn’t,” Marshall head coach John Ralph said.
Marshall won a state title in 1990 as Dayton Colonel White High School. The school moved buildings 14 months ago and was renamed Thurgood Marshall and was in the state tournament for the first time as the Cougars.
“I think that my kids played hard and they played well,” Ralph said. “The other team got the trophy but I feel my athletes and my team are champions.
“The character, the heart and the willingness to work together for a common goal – it doesn’t get any better than that. I am very proud of them.”
For SVSM, the title is the first title since James’ senior year in 2003. The Irish made the Final Four in 2006 but lost to eventual state champion Dayton Dunbar in the semifinals.
Prior to the 2003 title, SVSM won titles in 1984, 2000 and 2001 and are now tied for second place with Columbus East fo0r most state championships..
“This is about a tradition that has grown and it is bigger than all of us,” Joyce said. “We’ve got guys here that understand that we’ve built something here and we are going to keep building it.”