By Nick Shook | Special to the Beacon Journal
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CANTON: It took nearly all 32 minutes of play before the result was no longer in question, but St. Vincent-St. Mary continued its march to Columbus on Thursday night.
St. V-M outlasted pesky Mentor Lake Catholic to advance to the Division II regional final with a 68-52 win at the Canton Civic Center.
Jalen Hudson was the consistent driving force behind the Irish on both ends of the floor, scoring 21 points to lead St. V-M (18-9). A senior guard, Hudson was the only Irish player to score in every quarter in a game in which the Irish led from start to finish. Despite his team-leading numbers, Hudson’s defense might have been the deciding factor.
“Jalen is a senior leader,” Irish coach Dru Joyce said. “This is his team, him and [senior guard] Jarel [Woolridge]. I challenged Jalen to guard [Lake Catholic senior guard] Zavier Powers.”
Powers entered the game averaging 20.5 points per game to lead the Cougars (19-6). Hudson held him scoreless.
“I thought [Hudson] did a great job and then he came back and scored buckets,” Joyce said. “That’s what you want out of your seniors.”
While Hudson helped the Irish remain ahead of the Cougars during the first half, VJ King was quiet. A 6-foot-7 sophomore and one of the top 10th-graders in the nation, King struggled to get himself going, missing multiple 3-pointers early in the game.
That changed in the second half.
Aided by increased pressure from the Irish defense, King and Hudson teamed to force multiple turnovers in the Lake Catholic backcourt in the third quarter, resulting in impressive alley-oops from Hudson to King that drew “oohs” and “ahs” from the 1,746 in attendance in Canton. King scored all 16 of his points in the second half.
“We talked about it at halftime, they had some guys in foul trouble and we really wanted to get after it, turn the volume up a little bit and see what happened,” Joyce said. “We got a couple quick easy ones and that extended the lead, so at that point we could relax.”
It was a sudden turnaround from a St. V-M team that had led 20-10 near the end of the first, but held just a 32-29 advantage at halftime. A Hudson fastbreak dunk — created by another steal — pushed St. V-M’s lead to 45-31, its largest of the night, with less than five minutes to play in the third.
Despite trailing all night, Lake Catholic wouldn’t go away that easily.
Trailing 50-41 early in the fourth, the Cougars, led by junior guard Justin Robinson (14 points), went on a 7-2 run to cut the St. V-M lead to 52-48. But after a Lake Catholic timeout, the Irish went on one final run to put the game out of reach, punctuated by back-to-back dunks from King, the eighth and ninth Irish slams of the night.
“He had an ugly first half, and he would say that,” Joyce said. “There’s so much pressure on the kid, and I’m trying to help him understand ‘just relax, let the game come to you.’ Once he started to relax, things started to happen.”
King echoed the statements of his coach, saying that his teammates’ encouragement also helped him find success in the second half.
“I was kind of forcing it in the first half and it wasn’t working for me,” King said. “The second half, I was just slowing down. I got easy ones.”
Junior Josh Williams added 11 points for St. V-M.
With the win, St. V-M advances to the regional final to face Poland Seminary. The Bulldogs upset Cleveland Central Catholic 60-52 in the first game of Thursday night’s doubleheader.