St. John's Austin Gardner drives past Central Catholic's Deontae Cole during Friday night's game at the Sullivan Center. Gardner scored 15 points to help the Titans improve to 19-3.
THE BLADE/JEREMY WADSWORTH
St. John’s Jesuit put the finishing touches on an outright Three Rivers Athletic Conference basketball title Friday night, as host Central Catholic ran out of steam down the stretch in a 48-34 loss to the Titans before a sold-out crowd of 2,400 at the Sullivan Center.
Seniors Marc Loving and Austin Gardner paced the fifth-ranked Titans (19-3, 13-1 TRAC) with 20 and 15 points, respectively, and St. John’s closed the deal by holding ninth-ranked Central to three fourth-quarter points.
“We’re in a good place right now as a team,” St. John’s coach Ed Heintschel said. “I like where we are, and I like the guys’ approach and their attitude. That can all come unraveled pretty quickly [in tournament], because one bad night and it’s done.
“But this closes a chapter on a very successful regular season at 19-3. That’s outstanding, because our conference — with three teams ranked in the top 10 — is extraordinarily difficult to play in.”
The Irish (17-5, 9-5), who lost their final three regular-season games, all in TRAC competition, played the last two without 6-foot-5 senior post player Keith Towbridge.
Towbridge, Central’s leading scorer (11.4 average) and the TRAC’s top rebounder (9.8), served the second game of a two-game suspension after drawing two technical fouls in the previous Friday’s overtime loss at Whitmer.
The Irish, preseason favorites to win the TRAC, fell 63-57 Tuesday night at Findlay and ended in a tie for third place with the Trojans.
At the outset in this game, however, short-handed Central looked poised to give St. John’s a serious upset bid.
“To beat them in their place, even without Keith, is a big win,” Gardner said. “It was a very competitive league. Going on the road is very tough, and the regular season has gotten us prepared for the tournament. It’s just another bonus to win the TRAC.”
Running a more deliberate offense than usual, and digging in defensively, the Irish trailed just 14-12 after one quarter and 21-20 at halftime.
The halftime edge for the Titans came courtesy of Gardner, who nailed a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to close the half.
Up to that point, the 6-foot-8, Ohio State-bound Loving was St. John’s only effective offensive option before the break, with 13 of his 20 points.
“We didn’t come in just thinking TRAC championship,” Loving said. “We wanted to focus on beating Central. That’s one of our biggest rivals, and we really worked hard in practice to get this victory.
“We settled down at halftime and really came out focused in the second half. We wanted to work on our defense, getting stops. That defense created some transition opportunities, and we finished.”
With a gritty effort, the Irish remained within three of the Titans until the final 2 minutes, 20 seconds of the third quarter.
That’s when Loving converted and inside bucket and, after Central’s D.J. Moody sank one of two free throws, Gardner hit the third of his four 3-pointers for a 38-31 lead, which the Titans took to the final period.
The Irish opened the fourth quarter with two unforced turnovers and failed to get off even one field-goal attempt against the Titans until 5:10 remained.
Central’s only fourth-quarter points came on C.J. Bussey’s three-point play with 2:39 to play. Bussey led Central with 10 points.
Gardner answered that with a 3-pointer 18 seconds later, and the Titans closed the game on an 8-0 run.
“They were spent and you could tell, because we made so many mistakes [late],” Central coach Jim Welling said of his team “Those are fatigue mistakes. If the kids are fresh, they stay with the game plan and grind it out.
“In the first half, and even a little bit into the third quarter, it was, ‘Boy, this is how it should be.’ It was a real good, hard, back-and-forth, possession-by-possession, grind-it-out type of game. That’s the way you have to play to beat St. John’s.”
St. John’s was 17 for 38 (45 percent) from the field, 9 for 11 from the line, and outrebounded the Irish 21-12.
Central was 14 for 26 (54 percent) from the field and 5 for 6 at the line, and committed 10 turnovers to six for the Titans.
Contact Steve Junga at: email@example.com, or 419-724-6461 or on Twitter@JungaBlade.