WARREN - The Warren G. Harding Raiders didn't dare look beyond their mission Friday night, but they could be excused for taking a little peek.
With a 7-7 record entering a Lake Erie League game against the Euclid Panthers, the Raiders placed their collective attention on the task at hand, which turned into an impressive 66-45 win. In the process, Raiders coach Andy Vlajkovich had an eye on what he hopes will be a strong finish into the tournaments.
"I'm not worried about the record," Vlajkovich said. "I just want this team to be playing its best basketball at the right time of the year. We're still a month away from the tournament. We have seven games to go. Our goal is to get better every game and hit that tournament running."
The goal was the same for the players, but they had something else on their minds. Getting the record back above the .500 mark was important.
"I tried to lead my teammates out there because we needed this win so we could stay above .500," said senior O'sha Jackson, who led the Raiders in scoring (16 points) and rebounding (eight). "We're looking to go on a run."
There wasn't much not to like about the game for Vlajkovich. The Raiders (8-7 and 3-5 in the LEL) jumped out to a 21-4 lead in the first quarter and went into the second period ahead, 21-9.
The Panthers (6-9 and 4-6) were never able to make a run. They got to within nine points on a 3-point shot by Linden Stephens at the outset of the second quarter, but the Raiders were able to stretch their lead to 37-19 at halftime.
Harding played better in all facets than it did in a 76-68 loss in an earlier encounter at Euclid. It might have been the Raiders' best effort of the season.
"Our guys came out with energy," Vlajkovich said. "We laid the press on early, and I thought we were unselfish early. We got our confidence going with some easy buckets to the rim. When you do that, then you start making some jumpers. I thought us turning them over early was the thing that jump started us."
The Raiders forced 26 turnovers and committed 19. The mistakes seemed to frustrate the Panthers.
"We had to get on top of them early," Jackson said. "We knew if we got on top of them that they were going to give up. We had to play up to our potential."
Jackson had his best performance of the season in leading a balanced attack. Ten players scored for the Raiders, including 14 by Mik'quan Dorsey.
"If we're sharing the basketball, we're a pretty good basketball team," Vlajkovich said. "But when we get into that I'm-trying-to-make-a-10-point play, that's when we're not very good. It's important for us to keep the basketball, move it, get cutters, get the layups and then get the 3- (point shots) second. Like all levels of basketball, you can't shoot early jumpers."
The Raiders went on a 10-point run in the third period to open their largest lead at 54-26, and they took a 54-28 lead into the fourth quarter. The Panthers chipped away at the deficit and got to within 15 points, but the Raiders scored eight straight points.
Chavez Harper led the Panthers in scoring with 11 points.
Harding is at East Cleveland Shaw Friday.