LUCASVILLE — Before Tuesday night’s Southern Ohio Conference Division II slate tipped off, the Minford Falcons firmly gripped that top SOC II spot.
And, entering this weekend, and following Tuesday night’s key clash with the archrival Valley Indians, that Falcon grip is even tighter.
No doubt the Indians indeed made their runs at Minford, and connected with proverbial counter-punches — putting amped-up pressure on the visiting Falcons for the final five minutes and dozen seconds.
But the Falcons’ fury of their own answered the bell, and Minford made it a regular-season sweep of the Indians —winning a high-energy, high-quality, epic encounter with a 71-66 triumph at Valley High School’s Reservation.
Six weeks ago, on Dec. 9 to be exact, the Falcons fended off the Indians 61-57 —gaining an early leg up in the SOC II race at that time.
Since then, the Falcons have soared over the rest of the division —and remain undefeated at 10-0 in the league, part of now 12-1.
The Indians, needing a victory to stay within realistic striking distance of Minford, slipped to 10-3 —and now 7-3 in the SOC II, as Valley, Northwest (5-3 SOC II) and Wheelersburg (6-3 SOC II) are all deadlocked in the loss column for the runner-up spot.
The Falcons, for their feather’s cap, are closing in on their first boys basketball conference championship since the middle of the previous decade —which included shared titles in 2013 and 2016, sandwiched around an outright crown in 2015.
But the immediate Falcon focus, per veteran Minford coach Josh Shoemaker, was Tuesday’s tilt at Valley —and making sure they stayed well ahead of the field.
“It’s a huge win, but we know we’re playing for so much more. All we’ve been doing all season is always trying to get better. We’ll take the win, because Valley is a great team,” said Shoemaker. “We knew they were going to make runs, and we did a good job of sustaining our runs.”
Both teams, in front of a full house at The Reservation, threw their haymakers —including the Indians’ impactful one, which was amid a 15-point third-quarter deficit.
The Falcons, thanks to a massive 27-9 tripling up of the Indians in the defining second stanza, forged a 52-37 advantage at the three-minute and 40-second mark of the third frame.
But a 19-4 Valley surge, by the 5:12 juncture of the fourth, forced the game’s second tie at 56-56 —and the first since at 19-19, and a minute and 35 seconds surpassed in the second.
However, the Falcons never trailed for the final 22 minutes and five tics —even amid an Indian charge which included one-point Minford leads of 59-58, 61-60 and 64-63 over a two-minute fourth-quarter span.
Across the board, both inside and outside the arc, Minford shot 42-percent (25-of-60) —including 10-of-24 from three-point territory.
Joe Hannah hit three, and Myles Montgomery and Adam Crank a pair apiece, but none were larger than six-foot and four-inch sophomore Jackson Shoemaker stepping out —and dropping triples in.
He splashed all three of his trifectas in a two-minute fourth-period stretch, giving the Falcons leads of 59-56, 64-60, and 67-63.
The coach’s son Shoemaker muscled for a game-high 22 points on 9-of-15 shooting, including six twos —five of which were in the first half and the final of which was part of an old-fashioned three-point play that made it 37-24.
But young Shoemaker making not one, not two, but three clutch treys was remembered best — and reflected upon — by both head coaches.
“Coming into the game, we weren’t thinking Jack (Shoemaker) would hit three straight threes like that down there,” said the elder Shoemaker. “He’s actually been a little off the last couple of games, so in a game like this, it was great to see him step out and hit three shots like that in that spot.”
“Once we tied it there (56-56), we had to get a stop. Jack hitting three threes, just gotta give him credit,” said Valley coach Craig Tackett. “Those were three big shots.”
Then there’s the six-foot and seven-inch Hannah, who tossed in 20 points to back up Shoemaker’s 22 —including a two-handed slam dunk on a rebound putback that made it 61-58 with 4:25 to play.
It was Hannah’s only field goal of the entire fourth quarter, but one which lifted the Falcon faithful onto their feet —and into a frenzy.
Hannah had a three-pointer in each of the first three cantos, went 5-of-6 from the free-throw line over the same time frame, and had his other deuce for a 49-35 Minford cushion — at the four-and-a-half minute mark of the third.
His 20-point scoring night on 6-of-8 shooting supplemented his 12-rebound effort.
“Joe just does everything he needs to do,” said Coach Shoemaker. “He isn’t flashy. He is the perfect teammate. For him to step up and have a game like that, I am really proud of Joe and just the many different things he did. He hits big shots, makes good passes, gets key defensive rebounds. He just played a complete game. They (Indians) did everything they could to throw things and double-teams at Myles (Montgomery), but Joe did everything he could to step up and really play for well us.”
Both Shoemaker and Hannah had five points apiece as part of the 27-point second-salvo barrage, in which the Falcons erased a 19-13 deficit following the opening quarter.
The Indians opened with a 16-9 lead at the 2:12 mark, but over a span of 10 seconds shy of a full eight minutes —Minford spurted on a 26-6 run, including 17 unanswered in the first four minutes of the second.
Coach Shoemaker and staff switched defenses, “because we were struggling”.
“Valley was executing so well at the beginning. Guarding them man and keeping them in front, they did what they wanted. So we switched it up, was able to get some stops, and got out in transition,” said the coach. “I thought we took care of the basketball, we had a lot of assists in the second quarter, and we were able to move the ball and Joe (Hannah) and Jack (Shoemaker) were able to get inside and finish.”
Tackett talked about his Indians being “less disciplined” in that decisive second quarter.
“We weren’t sticking to our scouting report or our gameplan in terms of defense. Like we were just out there doing our own thing,” he said. “I don’t know how many offensive rebounds and second-chance points we gave up to them. They continued to get what they wanted in the second and third. That was huge. For them to score 27 points in a quarter, that’s very frustrating in terms of our defensive discipline. We know Minford is a very talented offensive team, but that second quarter for us, we were not very disciplined.”
Montgomery scored 11 of his 15 points in the period — including both twos, both threes, and 2-of-2 of his 5-of-6 foul shots.
Those were his only field goals of his 15 total shots, but the speedy sophomore point man —a prohibitive frontrunner for Southeast District Division III Player of the Year —also made four steals and dished out five assists.
“Myles was under a lot of pressure tonight, but he still made A LOT of plays,” said Shoemaker. “We told him to attack, I don’t care how many shots he misses. There’s a reason why Myles has got to where he is at.”
After Bennett Kayser scored his final of his four field goals for a 69-63 bulge, with two minutes and five seconds left, Montgomery made two free throws a minute later for an eight-point advantage at 71-63.
Once again, junior Jace Copley spearheaded Valley with 18 points, including his third and final three-pointer with 45 seconds left —and a 71-66 deficit.
The Falcons then missed three front ends of the one-and-one bonus free-throw situation, over a 13-second span in fact, but the Indians didn’t answer.
Valley shot an even 46-percent on 29-of-63, but only 28-percent on 5-of-18 outside the arc —as Copley canned a trio and George Arnett added a second-half pair.
Four Indians —Copley with 18 (four twos), Arnett (four twos) with 14, Carter Nickel with six twos towards 12 and Colton Buckle with five twos towards 11 —all amounted double figures, with 6-8 senior Levi Stewart scoring nine (four field goals) and notching nine rebounds.
Buckle’s dozen boards tied Hannah for game-high, as the Falcons made 16 trips to the free-throw line and meshed 11 —while Valley was just 3-of-5, with splits by Buckle (fourth quarter) and Stewart (fourth quarter).
Copley capped the opening eight minutes with a three-point play —and a 19-13 Valley lead.
But, for the next 12 minutes and 20 seconds, as Newfound Glory once sang, it was all downhill from here for the Indians —as Minford further tightened its grip towards an SOC II title.
“I thought Jace (Copley) hit some big shots throughout the game, especially in the fourth quarter. He created a lot of good opportunities for himself and other guys tonight. But second quarter, he didn’t get enough touches. The way Minford face-guarded him, they were all over him and they made it tough on him. Then Jack’s three threes were just icing on the cake when we didn’t get a stop,” said Tackett. “This loss just hurts us in the conference race, but Minford is a tough team to beat, both at home and on the road.”
“Just a good effort throughout the game to keep our head,” said Shoemaker. “It’s a game of runs, and luckily, we had the last run in us.”
* * *
Minford 13 27 12 19 —71
Valley 19 9 18 20— 66
MINFORD (12-1, 10-0 SOC II)
Bennett Kayser 4 0-0 8, Adam Crank 2 0-0 6, Myles Montgomery 4 5-6 15, Jeffrey Pica 0 0-1 0, Jackson Shoemaker 9 1-3 22, Joe Hannah 6 5-6 20; TOTALS 25 11-16 71; Three-point field goals: 10 (Jackson Shoemaker and Joe Hannah 3 apiece, Adam Crank and Myles Montgomery 2 apiece)
VALLEY (10-3, 7-3 SOC II)
George Arnett 6 0-0 14, Hunter Edwards 1 0-0 2, Colt Buckle 5 1-2 11, Parker Lute 0 0-0 0, Carter Nickel 6 0-0 12, Jace Copley 7 1-1 18, Levi Stewart 4 1-2 9; TOTALS 29 3-5 66; Three-point field goals: 5 (Jace Copley 3, George Arnett 2)