WEST PORTSMOUTH — When a talented unit plays with a determination that is unmatched by its opponent, the results usually tend to be scary.
On Friday evening, the Wheelersburg Pirates’ boys basketball program put together yet another truly scary result on the board as five first-half threes from Connor Mullins, the all-around play of Cole Lowery, Tanner Holden, and Justin Salyers, and a truly stifling defense allowed Wheelersburg to go on as large as a 15-0 run as the Pirates rolled to a 67-41 victory over the West Senators’ basketball program on Friday evening in West Portsmouth.
For Steven Ater, the effort of Wheelersburg’s defense to remain as committed as it did throughout the contest was a credit to his personnel.
“I thought our defense extended them and made them go out farther on the perimeter than they wanted to operate,” Ater said. “It disrupted the rhythm and flow of their offense. They have really nice offensive players. (Jordan) Frasure is one of them. It seems like he’s been a varsity player for more than four years just because he’s played a lot of varsity basketball, but he’s a really good player. It was imperative that we make it tough on him to get the ball or catch it in a comfortable spot. Then, (L.T.) Maynard is a guy that can get to the basket and catch, shoot, pull up, and hit jump shots. Speeding up a team like that and keeping them off-balance is important, and I thought that our guys did a really good job of that.”
As for Bill Hafer, the result was simply a part of playing against a team that is playing, to put it simply, stellar basketball.
“Man, Wheelersburg can play,” Hafer said. “They were on fire last night. They hit just about everything that they wanted, and we ran into a buzzsaw. That’s probably the best team that we’ve faced all year. They can really defend the halfcourt, and with the way that they can shoot, they’re a really dangerous team.”
From the opening tip, Wheelersburg wasted no time establishing a hold on the affair as the Pirates jumped out to a large 7-0 gap behind the play of Mullins, Lowery, and Holden, who launched a beautiful 40-foot bounce pass straight on the money to a streaking Mack Dyer who quickly converted the junior forward’s bounce pass into an easy layup.
However, the Pirates — who would never lose the point over the entire affair — were just getting warmed up. When West cut the deficit to a 9-4 margin — including a field goal from Frasure that marked West’s first of the contest with 2:23 to play in the opening quarter — Mullins, who nailed a game-opening basket from beyond the arc, really got heated up.
The junior nailed back-to-back three-point field goals from the right side of the floor as the Pirates ended the first quarter on an 8-0 run en route to establishing a 17-4 first-quarter advantage. Mullins ultimately finished with 17 points to aid Wheelersburg in its efforts.
“Connor’s shooting got us going,” Ater said. “On the offensive end, he loosened things up for everybody. They were really collapsing on Tanner inside, so the ability for us to find Connor in open spots, and have him knock down some shots, was great. He had a fantastic night shooting the basketball. It just helped everybody relax. A team like West comes in with hopes of an upset, and that’s kind of deflating for them to watch those shots fly through the net.”
In the second frame of play, however, L.T. Maynard and Jessie Johnson were able to rally the Senators back into the affair with their offensive scoring punch. Maynard, who proved to be a difficult cover with his array of hesitation moves, and Johnson, who added a three from dead-on in addition to a pair of free throws, combined for 12 points over the game’s opening 12 and a half minutes.
“L.T. and Jessie got us within striking distance, but it seemed like every time we’d hit a three or make a push, they’d make two threes or come back with a larger run,” Hafer said. “They were just really hitting from the outside a lot. I thought that our defense was pretty good.”
But as Hafer referenced, Wheelersburg’s pushes — especially in the second quarter of action — proved to be too much.
With the score at 23-14 in favor of the Pirates after the bursts of Maynard and Johnson allowed West to close the gap, Wheelersburg responded with its best basketball of the night as a Trent Salyers basket ultimately led to two Pirates’ takeaways that resulted in Mullins draining back-to-back threes from the left wing. Holden’s play around the rim, along with a buzzer-beating three-pointer from NBA range by Lowery, allowed the Pirates to take a 38-14 halftime lead thanks to a 29-10 spurt from Wheelersburg over the last 10 minutes of the half.
“We gave up some things as a coach that you look on film and say, ‘That wasn’t ideal,’ but when you look up and you’re only giving up 14 points at half, you’re doing something right,” Ater said. “So we came in at half and said, ‘Hey, we shot the ball well and we’re getting out in transition, so we need to try to continue to push the lead up with sectional pairings coming out this week.’ We thought that it was important for us to make sure that we didn’t come out flat, and I thought that our guys did a really nice job of that. That shows maturity and growth out of a team. You hope that you’re playing your best basketball at this point in the season. I’m not saying that we’re there yet, but we’re progressing toward that.”
But as strong as the offense was, the defense was the area where Wheelersburg proved to be lights out. Dyer, who held Frasure to just two first-half points and five total tallies through three quarters of play, was a prime example.
“I thought Mack Dyer did a great job of guarding Frasure and limiting his scoring opportunities,” Ater said. “He got some points in the second half when we had a lead, but I thought that Mack did a really nice job overall.”
Holden, who continued to be consistent throughout the contest, along with Lowery and Salyers, then took over the scoring load in the second half of play. The former scored six of his points during an 8-0 Wheelersburg run, with Lowery obtaining 11 of his team-high 19 in the second half and Salyers adding four of his eight points in the third quarter to push the lead out to as much as a 50-20 lead behind another 8-0 spurt before the Pirates ultimately settled for a 52-25 advantage at the end of the third quarter.
“Cole was great,” Ater said. “He was setting up his teammates and was just very unselfish with with the basketball. He found Justin for a layup, he drove, kicked, and got Connor a three. As for Justin, he’s been so vital to our success off of the bench for us. He started a game earlier in the year when we had some sickness going around. So he’s just been valuable to us with his presence alone. But when he gets his minutes, he comes in and he plays hard every second on the floor. His offense is something that has even surprised us, and maybe even him. His jumpshot’s beautiful, but his finishing around the basket is what has really come a long way from his sophomore year to now. He’s not our biggest guy, but he just seems to find a way to get the ball up on the glass and finish those shots. We wouldn’t be where we are without him and the contributions that he, along with Dustin Darnell, have put together all season long. Those guys have been very big for us.”
In the fourth quarter of play, Frasure did his very best to bring West back into the fray as the Senators attempted to rally for one final charge. The senior scored 12 of his team-high 17 points in the fourth quarter and brought West within 54-32 at one point, but Lowery ultimately answered with nine fourth-quarter points to help bring the game to its conclusion.
“Jordan took it upon himself to get us going in the third and fourth quarters,” Hafer said. “He’s a senior and, with his strength, was able to finish off a couple of post moves inside that I was really proud of. He was able to hit one or two threes there, so that was definitely a positive. Jordan’s always going to play until the final buzzer. He does that every night for us.”
“Our practice habits have been really good lately,” Ater said of his team’s shooting performance. “We’ve been very focused. When we’re shooting the basketball, we’re shooting shots at game speed. That’s a credit to our players in how they’ve taken the coaching and applied that to the game.”
With the victory, Wheelersburg improved its overall record to a strong 15-3 while also improving its overall SOC II mark to a stellar 11-2. The Pirates have OVC competitor South Point on Tuesday evening before playing host to Valley in its final SOC II contest of the year. A Wheelersburg win in the latter affair, along with an Oak Hill loss to either Northwest or Valley, would allow the Pirates to share the conference title with the Oaks.
“South Point has one of, if not the, best point guard in Southeast Ohio (in Tayshaun Fox),” Ater said. “They also have a really nice freshman forward (in Austin Webb) and some other kids who can shoot the basketball. At this point, it is just about improving and trying to work out the kinks before you go to the sectional tournament. We’ve got to stay healthy and keep getting better.”
As for West, there isn’t too much to be disappointed about, especially considering that a win over Chillicothe Huntington on Saturday evening gave the Senators its fifth victory in over its last eight affairs — with its only losses during that span coming to the Pirates, the Oaks, and Georgetown, who has already clinched the Southern Buckeye Conference Championship. The Senators currently sit with a respectable 8-10 overall mark and are 5-8 in SOC II action.
“I’m happy,” Hafer said. “We got an overtime victory over New Boston (last Tuesday), and had won four of our last six coming in, with our only two losses to Oak Hill, who will likely win our conference, and Georgetown, who will win its conference — and the Georgetown game came down to the buzzer. We’ve just got to put this loss out of our minds.”