IRONTON — Sometimes, the best and early Christmas gifts are those unexpected ones.
DeAndre Berry, and the Portsmouth Trojans, delivered one such for Southeastern Ohio on Wednesday at the Ironton Classic.
That’s because Berry bagged 13 points, buried two one-and-one free throws with four-and-a-half seconds remaining, and ultimately blocked Wesley Christian’s game-winning shot attempt —all en route to the Trojans storming back from an 11-point third-quarter deficit, and simply shocking the Circuit Riders 58-57 inside Ironton High School’s Conley Center.
That’s correct, this wasn’t exactly what Portsmouth probably planned out —but it indeed all panned out.
The surprising comeback win, against a Wesley Christian (Ky.) club chock full of players from outside of the United States and 10 of them standing at least six-foot three-inches or taller including two towering at 6-7, evened Portsmouth’s record to 3-3 —and likely made good for how the Trojans ended up playing the Circuit Riders in the first place.
Portsmouth veteran head coach Gene Collins thought so anyways.
“I’m tickled to death right now. Our kids fought and overcame a lot of things tonight —size, strength, they shot it really, really well,” said an elated Collins. “We got down 11 in the third quarter, but our guys kept fighting and fighting. Once we got the lead, it was a matter of whether we could hang on. Playing on a big stage here, everybody is here to see some of these national teams play. I told our guys that the crowd will get behind us if we can make it a game. Hats off to our guys for never backing down and not being afraid. They just kept playing and we were able to finish it out.”
Wesley Christian, after a two-year hiatus of no basketball, primarily plays a national schedule —including Oak Hill Academy out of eastern Virginia, Huntington Prep out of Huntington (W.Va.), and Hamilton Heights Christian Academy out of Chattanooga, Tenn.
The Circuit Riders, prior to Portsmouth, lost to Logan (W.Va.) —the only other true public high school squad they have played.
Wesley was scheduled to play a prominent team from North Carolina at Ironton, but that team canceled out —and the Portsmouth-Piketon non-league matchup was scrapped as well, leaving the Trojans to fill the Wednesday hole to see the Circuit Riders.
Wesley was dunking in pre-game warmups, but instead of a slam dunk contest, the game quickly turned into an up-and-down-the-floor three-point shooting display —of which the Circuit Riders rained in 11 and the Trojans eight, including five by senior Tyler Duncan.
To few observers’ surprise, Portsmouth struggled to defend the three-ball —which plagued the Trojans in Ohio Valley Conference losses to Coal Grove, at South Point, and to less of a degree against Fairland.
Against Wesley, the Trojans fell behind 16-8, 27-17, 29-19, 42-31, and finally 48-38 after three quarters.
The Circuit Riders scored 16 points apiece in each of the opening three periods.
But each instance, Portsmouth pulled almost even —including 16-14 following the opening salvo and 32-28 at halftime, behind Berry’s nine first-half points.
The Trojans then saved their second-half comeback charge for best, scoring 11 unanswered —and staking a 49-48 lead with five minutes and seven seconds remaining.
That was the first of five lead changes in the final 5:07, as Duncan dropped in his fifth and final three-pointer from the left wing two minutes and four seconds later —making it 52-51 Portsmouth.
Collins commented that the Trojans’ transition game played a role in each and every comeback moment.
“We constantly told our guys that if we could rebound and get past that first outlet pass, good things would happen on the other end,” said the coach. “They didn’t rotate back really well, so if we could rebound and get through that outlet, we could get easy looks in transition. When we did, we scored.”
Still, two Trojan turnovers in a span of nine seconds —and two Circuit Rider baskets — made it 57-56 in favor of Wesley Christian, including Makar Nemkov collecting an inbounds pass and laying it in for the final Wesley lead.
But Wesley Christian committed a foul against Berry with four-and-a-half seconds to play, and Portsmouth —with just a second-quarter split by Duncan and 3-of-3 by fellow senior Kenny Sanderlin to that point —had one last chance on the one-and-one to go ahead.
The junior Berry, coolly and calmly, bucketed both.
“DeAndre Berry just stepped up absolutely huge with those free throws,” said Collins.
He finished with 13 points including a first-quarter three-point goal — as his steal, drive and basket with 2:50 remaining made it 54-51.
Berry was Portsmouth’s Game Most Valuable Player —but he undoubtedly saved his best play for last.
The Circuit Riders, out of a timeout and with the ball inbounded on their side of halfcourt, called for a runner off a screen for Nemkov, but Berry — standing 6-1 — blocked the buzzer-beater, much to the delight of the Portsmouth-partisan crowd in Ironton.
“Hats off to DeAndre for being aggressive and to get that block and not foul on the shot,” said Collins.
Wesley made as many threes (11) as it did twos —and only attempted five free throws with two makes, because it spent so much time and energy, despite its obvious size advantage, attempting triples.
Nikita Bolshov with five treys and Matej Prising with four more paced the Allen, Ky.-based unit with 17 and 16 points respectively.
Speaking of 16, Duncan drained five — including four for the second half — en route to a Trojans’ team-high 16 points.
“We’ve been harping and harping all year that we need to find more ways to get Tyler Duncan more looks. When he is open he makes them, and it’s no accident that he makes shots,” explained Collins. “It’s a lot easier to get him more shots when the floor is opened up and we’re running up and down, but in the half court, we’re really looking to get him more shots. We felt today that Wesley Christian wasn’t going to focus on any one particular guy. He was going to shake free, we just had to find him. We did that.”
Besides Berry’s one and Duncan’s fivesome, the other two Trojan trifectas belonged to junior Donovan Breech towards 10 points —including one only a minute-and-a-half into the fourth quarter, cutting the deficit to 48-44.
Sanderlin scored four field goals plus his 3-of-3 free throws for 11, including his old-fashioned three-point play on a reverse layup which put Portsmouth in front.
Luke Stein scored a first-quarter field goal, Devon Lattimore made two second-stanza baskets, and Levaughn Cobb’s good baseline bucket made it 56-53 with 56 seconds showing.
“I think our kids are growing up a little bit and realizing that we have to be patient and run our things. Our struggle has been when we get in tough spots, guys just want to go one-on-one and take it themselves instead of working it and being patient and running what we want,” said Collins. “I thought that group that we finished with was really good at running our stuff and getting guys looks.”
Speaking of looks, perhaps average fans inside Ironton High School got a surprise of their own with Portsmouth’s play against the Circuit Riders —for which Christmas all worked out for the Trojans.
Collins said they won’t see a roster of that size or strength, or even different nationalities, again.
“It was good to see us get the support we got from just ‘Joe Fan’ who came and watched the game,” he said. “Our guys just overcame a lot and fought back and really worked to get this win.”
Portsmouth will return to Trojan Arena, and for another non-league tilt, on Wednesday night against Spring Valley (W. Va.).
* * *
Wesley Christian 16 16 16 9 —57
Portsmouth 14 14 10 20 —58
WESLEY CHRISTIAN 57 (2-12)
Nikita Bolshov 6 0-0 17, Miles Spencer 2 0-0 5, Matej Prising 6 0-1 16, Jalen Spencer 2 0-0 5, Adami Ouertani 1 1-2 3, Sefa Sackey 4 1-2 9, Makar Nemkov 1 0-0 2; TOTALS 22 2-5 57; Three-point field goals: 11 (Nikita Bolshov 5, Matej Prising 4, Miles Spencer and Jalen Spencer 1 apiece)
PORTSMOUTH 58 (3-3)
Donovan Breech 4 0-0 10, Norris McKinley 0 0-0 0, Tyler Duncan 5 1-2 16, Kenny Sanderlin 4 3-3 11, Devon Lattimore 2 0-0 4, Noah Livingston 0 0-0 0, Levaughn Cobb 1 0-0 2, Isaiah Lewis 0 0-0 0, Luke Stein 1 0-0 2, DeAndre Berry 5 2-2 13; TOTALS 22 6-7 58; Three-point field goals: 8 (Tyler Duncan 5, Donovan Breech 2, DeAndre Berry 1)
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @paulboggssports © 2022 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved