SALEM, Ohio (WKBN) – The Cardinal Mooney Cardinals won a hard-fought defensive slugfest 36-34 over the Nesshannock Lancers to capture the Salem Holiday Classic Basketball Tournament Thursday night.  The victory improves the Cardinals to 5-3 on the season while the Lancers dropped their first game and now hold a 5-1 mark on the year.

Cardinals’ sophomore guard Ashton O’Brien came off the bench to score 12 points to lead the Cardinals to the victory.  Drew Pecchia would score 8 points and lead the Cardinals with 5 rebounds in the game.

And it was the defense that won the game for the Cardinals in the final moments of the contest.  With the Cardinals clinging to a two-point lead with 32-seconds remaining in the contest, they missed the front end of a one-and-one.  But the Lancers’ Michael Sopko would come up short on a shot from the right side of the key with only six seconds left.  Then the Lancers’ inbound pass with just three seconds remaining was tipped by the Cardinals Jack Phillips into the backcourt as time expired in the game.

“Jack Phillips made an awesome play.  We knew they were going to try to get the ball to number 24 (Sopko), and he (Phillips) was able to get his hand in the passing lane and deflect it to allow time to run off the clock,” Cardinals coach Carey Palermo said.

The Cardinals jumped out to an early 5-0 lead in the game and held a 10-4 lead at the end of the first quarter.  But the Lancers would take control of the second period as they began the frame with a 9-2 run to grab their only lead in the game at 13-12.  That 1-point advantage came at the 4:31 mark when the Lancers Michael Sopko sank two free throws.  However, the Cardinals would close the half with a 6-0 run to hold an 18-13 lead going into the intermission.

“It wasn’t the prettiest game in the world,” Palermo stated.  “They played a triangle and two.  That really caught us off-guard because we hadn’t prepared for it and I hadn’t seen it.  So I think we got a little sped up in our process and threw us off the reads that we normally make.”

“It was a defensive fistfight out there,” Lancers coach John Corey remarked.  “I knew Cardinal Mooney would play hard, and coach Palermo does a terrific job with them.  So I knew we were going to have our hands full.  We were just trying to manufacture some stops and do different things to keep us in the basketball game.”

“They came in with a defense we hadn’t practiced against, so we had to make a switch and figure out what to do.  But we played great defense and held them to just 34 points which is big,” O’Brien added.

The Cardinals would enjoy a game-high 8-point advantage at the 3:54 mark of the third quarter when O’Brien drilled a three to make it 25-17 in favor of the Cardinals.  But once again, Sopko coolly converted two free throws at the end of the stanza to make it a 4-point game at 26-22.

The Cardinals would lead by four early in the fourth period, but the Lancers would cut the deficit down to just a bucket twice including a 2-point deficit with only 32 ticks remaining.  That set up Phillips’s big defensive play to preserve the victory.

Sopko would lead the Lancers with a game-high 17 points and 9 rebounds.  Paul Litrenta would connect on two three-pointers in the game to help the Lancers scoring effort.

“I’m really proud of our kids. I thought they played tremendously hard. It was a good old backyard fistfight there for a while,” Corey said. “But it was fun and it was exactly what we needed.”

The Cardinals will host the Canton Central Catholic Crusaders Tuesday night as they try to keep their two-game winning streak rolling.