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Game Recap: Armstrong 45, Burrell 38

By Josh Shreckengost

Armstrong senior guard Eli Wiles (3) hits a three early in the first quarter of the River Hawks' 45-38 season opening win over Burrell on Tuesday night. Wiles had a solid all-around game for Armstrong as he finished with nine points and three steals and helped the River Hawks get off to a 1-0 start to the 2021 season.

Kittanning, Pa.-- Armstrong boys varsity basketball head coach Brian Kovalovsky won his first game in blue and orange and the River Hawks held off a late charge by Burrell to escape their season opener with a victory, 45-38.

"I'm the happiest for the players and my staff because they have done everything that we've asked from them," Kovalovsky said when asked what his first River Hawks win meant to him personally. "It's been a challenging season and they've responded. We have had to change things last-minute, practice times and they never batted an eye. They were here. They are resilient. So most of all, I'm happy for the kids."

Armstrong showed that resiliency late in the game, when they erased two, two-point deficits in the final minutes after leading by as many as 12 points in the first half. Despite opening up a nine-point lead by halftime and holding Burrell to just 14 points in the first half, the River Hawks took their foot off the gas in the second half and the Bucs were able to make a charge.

The River Hawks had their way with the Bucs over the course of the first 16 minutes of play, both offensively and defensively. Armstrong opened up a 7-0 lead early in the game thanks to five quick points by senior guard/forward Eli Wiles. The River Hawks also relied on their size advantage in the paint with senior forward Cole Brown and sophomore big man Cadin Olsen dominating the glass.

While Brown struggled from the field and the free throw line, he hauled in 11 rebounds and also added two blocks. Olsen had a monster game in his sophomore debut as he finished with a team-best 19 points and game-high 14 rebounds. Olsen also added three assists -- two of them crucial helpers down the stretch -- as well as a steal and two blocks of his own.

"Cadin was really, really good tonight," Kovalovsky said. "He gave us exactly what we wanted for tonight's game. Our approach was we wanted to give them a healthy dose of Cadin and Cole. We thought that we could get the ball inside on them and we did that. Credit to Burrell, they did a better job in the second half, not letting us get those clean looks inside."

Burrell came out of the locker room with a renewed focus and Armstrong was unable to match the Bucs' energy in the period as they were outscored, 12-7. The Bucs contested shots and forced five turnovers in the quarter and took the River Hawks completely out of the offensive tempo which worked so well in the first half.

Burrell junior shooting guard Brandon Coury got hot and poured in six of his 14 second half points in the third. Coury finished with a game-high 20 points and carried the Bucs offensively in the second half of the game. With 4:33 left in the game, Coury put the Bucs ahead for the first time when he converted a lay-up off a missed free throw. That gave Burrell a 32-30 lead, but the River Hawks never panicked or wavered down the stretch, despite shooting poorly for nearly all of the final 16 minutes.

"We fumbled a couple of passes and missed a few easy shots and I think we kind of put our heads down a little bit and got out of our rhythm," Kovalovsky said. "Then (Wiles) got into foul trouble and he's such a big part of our defense. I'm proud of the effort. When we lost that lead, we just hung in there."

Armstrong battled back to take a 33-32 lead, but Burrell again found a key bucket when junior point guard Donavan Callahan hit a long three from the left side with 3:05 left to put the Bucs back on top by two, 35-33.

That's when Olsen took over.

On the River Hawks' next possession, Olsen hit a cutting Jack Valasek with a nice, backdoor no-look pass which resulted in an easy lay-up and retied the score, 35-35. On the ensuing Burrell possession, Olsen corralled a rebound off a Jack Henderson miss and showed off the arm that brought the Armstrong quarterback all-state honors on the gridiron when he fired a full-court strike to a streaking Eli Wiles for a lay-up that put Armstrong up by four, 37-35.

While the victory was a thrilling one for a young team looking to establish an identity, the River Hawks struggled with turnovers in the second half and shot only 12-for-24 from the free throw line. Armstrong also missed several shots from close range that both the players and coaching staff would consider extremely makeable.

Armstrong will have only the next couple of days to address those areas of concerns as the River Hawks will travel to Shaler this Friday to open Class 5A Section 4 play.

"That's why we really wanted this game tonight, to give us something before we travel to Shaler," Kovalovsky said. "We had five practices in December, had three weeks off, had four practices and a scrimmage last week so we wanted something before Friday night. We're going to get to work now and travel to Shaler on Friday and give it everything we've got."

To watch a complete rebroadcast of Armstrong's 45-38 win over Burrell, click the link below:

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