WHEELERSBURG — Watching two leaders step up for their respective teams in a critical conference matchup says wonders about the types of gamers that are present when a game is being played.
On Friday evening, the fans of the Wheelersburg Pirates’ and the West Senators’ basketball programs engaged in a primo SOC II matchup — and watched as Tanner Holden and Jordan Frasure put on a splendid display.
The pair, who went back-and-forth through the second half, ultimately scored 51 of the 107 points in the contest, with the duo combining for 30 in the final two periods alone in a thrilling display of basketball.
Ultimately, however, it was Holden’s 32-point outing — 28 of which came in the game’s final three quarters — that proved to be the difference-maker as the Pirates emerged victorious over the Senators, 56-51, in a great battle inside the halls of Wheelersburg High School on Friday evening in Wheelersburg.
But while the scoring battle was certainly fun to watch, the overall affair left the coaching staffs on both sides wanting more in the form of execution.
“West is a tough team,” Wheelersburg head coach Steven Ater said. “We’ve seen them a few times already, and they are a much-improved team. It’s a lot of the same kids. They’re just doing things a little differently. Through growth and maturity, they’re better. With knowing that ahead of time, we told our kids just that coming in. I thought that we had a few chances to extend the lead and put the margin to where it would be a lot more comfortable for us, and we didn’t take that. Whether it’s legs or inexperience at this point in the season, I’m not entirely sure, but we’ve had two chances to put a game away, and let a team hang around. Give West credit. They made some tough shots.”
“Turnovers were our Achilles heel all night long,” West head coach Bill Hafer said. “We turned the ball over too much and we didn’t handle pressure too well. We got into some foul trouble, and we couldn’t stop (Tanner) Holden. He got whatever he wanted.”
At the beginning, however, it was West that seemed to be getting whatever it wanted in the early going.
After Holden scored the opening basket of the contest to begin the game, the Senators wasted no time scorching the nets as Frasure, Brandon Moore, and Jessie Johnson combined to bang home a trio of treys off of excellent ball movement en route to leading West on an 11-1 run that ultimately put the Senators ahead by a 13-6 tally after a quarter of play.
“We came out fired up and were ready to play,” Hafer said. “We played within ourselves and didn’t try to do too much. We found our shooters and took care of the ball.”
“That’s not what we drew up from a pregame standpoint,” Ater said. “I thought that our energy level wasn’t good enough to start the game. We’re just having a hard time getting started in games. That was our third game. We haven’t had a chance to learn that lesson a whole lot right now.”
However, with his team down seven and needing a lift, Holden wasted no time providing the very spark that Wheelersburg needed.
In a matter of two possessions, Holden battled his way through contact to finish at the rim en route to earning an and-one opportunity, then, after missing the ensuing free throw, stole a pass and hammered the ball through the hoop while being fouled again to cut the West lead from seven to two in a matter of seconds. Holden’s plays then opened up the floor for Connor Mullins, who drained a trey from the left wing to give the Pirates a 14-13 advantage within the following pair of possessions.
While LT Maynard ultimately answered with a three of his own to give West the lead back, Holden’s rhythm-finding plays allowed the junior to take over the quarter. Ultimately, the 6-6 forward went on a personal 7-0 run that helped turn a four-point West lead into a 26-21 Wheelersburg advantage at the halftime break as Holden obtained 12 of his 32 points in the second frame alone.
“Tanner’s a special player,” Ater said. “A phenomenal athlete. His length and size is a tough matchup for people to get in front of. Tanner certainly put us on his back and took us over the finish line.”
“Tanner is a Division I player for a reason,” Hafer said. “He did what he was capable of doing. He got into the passing lanes, he’s long, and he’s quick. It’s tough for us.”
In the third frame, Holden, who scored six additional points in the opening 3:45 of the third quarter, helped Wheelersburg jump out to a 35-25 advantage.
Frasure, however, wasn’t afraid of the ensuing challenge. The senior forward showed that in a heartbeat by scoring 10 points in a matter of three minutes to cut into the Wheelersburg lead — with the senior chasing down his own missed three-pointer and finishing inside for a third-chance bucket during the middle of his outburst — to cut the Wheelersburg lead to 42-37 and 44-39.
“Jordan didn’t give up,” Hafer said. “He was a senior doing what seniors do. For that, I’m proud of him.”
But when Frasure was there to supply big buckets for the Senators, Mack Dyer was able to come right back and produce critical buckets in spades. The senior, who finished with nine points in the contest, scored five of those tallies by finishing a tough and-one through traffic and connecting on a low-post bucket to give Wheelersburg a 49-42 lead.
“Mack played really well for us,” Ater said. “I thought that he finished around the rim, made some free throws, and got a big and-one down there late for us. He’s coming along for us. He’s a good guy that we’re counting on a lot.”
Still, even a late 49-42 deficit wasn’t even enough to deter West from, again, making a late-game charge. Johnson, who put together a nice 13-point outing after scoring 30 points against Wheelersburg last season, was huge as the junior obtained five points during a 7-0 West run that cut Wheelersburg’s lead to just one, 52-51, with just 2:59 to play in the basketball game.
“When Jessie’s on the wing, he’s got to shoot it,” Hafer said. “We count on him to knock down shots. He’s coming into his own. He’s playing better. Every game, he’s playing a little bit better. He’s just got to trust himself. The shots are there for him.”
“We relinquished that lead and kind of let them get right back in the game,” Ater said. “We just didn’t deliver the finishing knockout blow. It’s a credit to West as much as it is a knock against us.”
But with the game on the line, it was the Pirates who found a way.
With the ball in its hands with 2:57 to go, Wheelersburg drained more than two critical minutes off of the clock before West fouled with 44.1 seconds to play, and — despite the fact that the Pirates missed the front end of two one-and-one opportunities — found solace in an outstanding defensive effort in the closing seconds as Wheelersburg forced three consecutive turnovers to seal the deal.
With the victory, the Pirates improved to 2-1 overall and conference play. However, Ater says the record means little when compared to the actual improvement of the unit, which showed in Wheelersburg’s 56-47 victory over Portsmouth on Saturday evening.
“We don’t look at records,” Ater said. “It’s daily improvement. That is all that we can focus on right now with where we are, and our kids are getting better daily.”
As for Hafer, the first-year head coach is proud of how his Senators are competing. After all, his unit’s already won three games from a unit that won just four last year with only two returning starters from the ‘16-‘17 team.
“Overall, I’m proud of our guys,” Hafer said. “We’re getting better. We can’t let these last three games get us (close losses to South Webster and ‘Burg, loss to Oak Hill at home) get us down.”
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