HOWLAND - Officials at the Division III district final here Saturday asked fans to squeeze as close as possible so more could be shoehorned into Howland High School's gymnasium.
The thinking must have been that everyone was in for a treat, so why not let as many fans as the fire code allows in on the fun.
No one can say their $6 ticket investment wasn't worth every penny as they watched the top-seeded LaBrae Vikings capture their first district title in four years with a 68-61 win in double overtime over the Ursuline Fighting Irish.
Tribune Chronicle / R. Michael Semple
LaBrae seniors celebrate winning the Division III?Howland district title Saturday night against Ursuline. Pictured are (front, from left) Paul Zigmont (44), Chris Clevenger (1), Carl Brown (15) and John Richards (23); (back row from left) James Hall, Nate Middleton, Tyler Schiamone.
"This is the best feeling ever," Vikings junior star Peyton Aldridge said. "Just to know all that hard work paid off. It was a release knowing that we got it."
Aldridge should have been too tired to make his trip up the ladder to help cut down the nets. In what turned into a physical game, Aldridge scored 27 points, grabbed 12 rebounds, blocked three shots and had two assists.
Aldridge saved his best for the end, scoring a combined 13 points in the two overtimes (six in the first and seven in the second).
"Someone had the nerve to say to me that Peyton Aldridge isn't that good," Irish coach Keith Gunther said. "Well, I'll tell you what. That's probably the best player we've had here since (Warren G. Harding's) Desmar Jackson. Peytons are few and far between. Great family; great kid. You take your hat off to him and his teammates because he stepped it up and made some big-time shots and got some big-time rebounds and got a couple of big blocks."
Arguably the biggest shots of the game were made by LaBrae's Marcell Richardson at the foul line in the waning seconds of regulation time. Richardson was sent to the line after being involved in a violent collision with Ursuline's Desmond McElroy. Richardson, unaware that he had suffered a concussion, made both free throws to tie the game at 44.
"He hit them big," Vikings coach Chad Kiser said. "He couldn't go back into the game. He's woozy right now. He got his bell rung. We missed him down the stretch when we had some matchups and wanted to get another post guy in and go big on them."
The Irish had a final chance to win in regulation after Richardson's foul shots. Coming off a timeout with slightly more than two seconds remaining in the period, Ursuline was able to get the ball into the hands of Ryan Strollo for a 15-foot baseline shot. Strollo, who began to find his outside shooting touch with seven third-quarter points, watched as the shot went in and out.
"We got him a perfect look," Gunther said. "Everyone knew Ryan was going to get it, but we didn't think he was going to get open. Ryan got the look, and it's funny how that becomes a game of inches. If the ball goes one way or another, we're out there cutting down the nets and jumping up and down instead of them."
The Vikings (22-3) led by as many as four points in the first overtime. Leading 54-52 late in the session, LaBrae extended the lead to three points on one free throw by Chris Clevenger. Khalid Pierce, who normally struggles at the foul line, then made two free throws to tie the score at 55 and set up a second overtime.
Aldridge opened the next extra period with a 3-point shot, but Strollo answered with a 3-pointer. The Vikings took a 63-58 lead on two free throws by John Richards, one by Carl Brown and two by Aldridge.
Ursuline's Chris Gunther hit his third 3-point shot to cut LaBrae's lead to 63-61. The Vikings closed out the game by making 5-of-8 free throws.
"Everybody did his job," Brown said. "I don't think it was our best offensive game, but we played good defense. It was a tough, hard game. Marcell went to the line and made two clutch free throws."
Kiser said his heart might have stopped on Strollo's miss at the end of the fourth quarter. He felt much better as he watched the nets come down.
"I'm really proud of these guys," Kiser said. "One of the things the senior class talked about is we haven't been able to win district. They've won at every level. They earned it. A lot of hard work. I don't take it easy on them. A great sense of pride."
The Irish (13-12) struggled in the first half as the Vikings took a 17-10 lead after one quarter and a 25-17 halftime lead. Aldridge scored 10 points in the first quarter.
LaBrae extended the lead to 30-19 early in the third period when Aldridge drove from near midcourt to dunk over McElroy. Aldridge was called for a charge, but the play brought down the house.
"He's pretty spectacular," Vikings senior Nathan Middleton said. "You saw him have that dunk. It's probably going to be on 'Sportscenter.' He's a great kid. Very humble. He knows what he's got."
LaBrae led 38-34 through three quarters. The score was tied at 38 and 42 before a jumper by Strollo gave the Irish a 44-42 lead.
Richardson finished with 12 points and Richards had 11. Strollo had 15 points but was 6-of-24 from the field. Kevin Jackson had 12 and McElroy scored 11.
The Vikings will play Oberlin Wednesday at 8 p.m. at the Memorial Fieldhouse in Canton in a regional semifinal.