On Friday night at New Boston, a crucial SOC I game featured a battle between the Eastern Eagles and New Boston Tigers.
Both schools were undefeated in SOC play entering the game, and each side was looking for some momentum in the conference heading in to Christmas break.
In a back and forth affair that came down to the very end, Eastern was able to outlast New Boston 59-54.
Michael Miller led the Eagles in scoring with 18 points, while Evan Leist followed up with 13 and Cody Weaver had 11.
The Tigers were led by 15 points from Kade Conley, with Tyler Caldwell posting 14 points and Drake Truitt finishing with 12. Kyle McQuithy also posted six points in his first game back for New Boston.
“Kade Conley and Drake Truitt played hard,” Tigers head coach Adam Cox said. “Kyle McQuithy hit some big shots in his first game back, and Kyle Sexton battled, and battled, and battled.”
Throughout the game, the contest was very physical throughout. Close games often come down to free throw shooting, and this matchup was no different.
Both teams endured their fair share of struggles at the line. Eastern finished 19-31 from the line (61 percent) while New Boston wound up 12-25 shooting free throws (48 percent).
“It’s never good when you miss that many free throws,” Cox said. “Especially when you have a chance to win a game on your homecourt where everyone in the county didn’t give us a chance in the game.”
The Tigers used that motivation throughout the week in practice in preparation leading up to the game, and embraced the role of underdog.
“The kids fed off that,” Cox said. “They knew they were 15 point underdogs at home, and they knew that Eastern was the favorite to win our conference. They worked hard this week, and I’m super proud of them.”
New Boston knew how important this game was to the school and this Tigers team. The stands were full already while the junior varsity game was being played, and the crowd was loud and supportive for both sides throughout.
“Our village is 100 percent behind us, and our kids have fed off that,” Cox said. “I couldn’t ask for a better teaching staff here, the teachers are behind these kids, the community is behind them, they want to see them win and compete.”
Early, Eastern jumped out in front. Weaver hit a free throw on the first possession, and Miller knocked down a three next time down the court for the Eagles to give them a 4-0 lead.
Unfazed, New Boston would rally back to tie the game relatively quickly with baskets from Conley and Truitt off of offensive rebounds on back-to-back possessions.
Miller and Weaver answered back simultaneously for Eastern, scoring two buckets off boards of their own to put the Eagles up 8-4. Cox would take a timeout with 3:34 to play in the first.
Both teams tried to gain control early, and a 5-0 run from Eastern on a Drake Myers three-pointer and a Weaver lay in put the Eagles up 13-7.
The Tigers clawed their way back in with several scores, and a Conley jump shot from the free throw line was the final basket of the opening quarter. After one, the Eagles were up 16-12.
Eastern was able to capture the second quarter, outscoring New Boston 14-8. It seemed as though the Eagles would pull away for a moment, as they enjoyed an 8-2 run over a span of 1:10 to take a 24-15 lead.
During that stretch, Eastern combined tough defense with second chance scoring opportunities to go up.
But, as the Tigers would do all game, New Boston found a way to get back in it when faced with adversity.
The Tigers took a 5-0 run of their own on a free throw from Truitt and two baskets from Alex Meade and Conley to make the score 24-20.
Answering right back, the Eagles closed out the second on a 6-0 run to take a 30-20 halftime lead. Several second chances from offensive rebounds helped Eastern have multiple shot possessions, leading to open looks and points.
Trailing by double digits, Cox knew his team was still very much alive and could handle the Eagles in the second half if things went their way.
“I told them we played our worst half of the season and we’re down 10 points to the best team,” Cox said. “We couldn’t get to the basket, they were doubling our post, they were out on our shooters.”
“We didn’t share the ball, we talked about looking across the court because they were so focused on clogging the lane for Truitt and Conley that we forgot we have two of the best shooters in the area with Caldwell and McQuithy. I just told them to look for them, and that we’re going to have to hit some shots.”
New Boston would knock down those shots out of the gate in the second half.
The Tigers came out on fire from deep, stroking four three-pointers to take a 12-0 run and a 32-30 lead.
First, Caldwell got New Boston going with a three on the first possession. Then, McQuithy got in on the action with another score from deep.
Caldwell caught the bottom of the net again with a three to push the score to a one point deficit, and McQuithy gave the Tigers the aforementioned lead on a trey with 5 minutes in the third.
“Tyler Caldwell carried us in the second half,” Cox said. “He had three fouls in the first half, and wasn’t able to get going.”
“It kind of got us out of the flow of our offense, but Tyler led us in the third quarter comeback. When he goes, we go, and he’s a great player as a junior.”
Eastern caught wind on offense and was able to push ahead 42-37 after a three-pointer from Hunter Cochenour.
The Tigers didn’t come all the way back early in the quarter for nothing, and kept pushing the pace on offense to tie things up at 42 all when Caldwell hit an open layup on an inbounds pass.
Dalton Tomlison hit a basket to give the Eagles a two-point lead, but Caldwell was cold as ice at the free throw line to tie the score at 44 entering the final quarter.
Caldwell had 13 of his 14 points in the third.
“We were down by 10 at the half, and we came out in the third quarter and we won by 10 points 24-14 and hit some big shots and had the game tied,” Cox said.
In the final period, New Boston took a 46-44 lead with six minutes to play after Truitt scored on a second chance following a missed free throw.
After the Tigers got a defensive stop, they had the ball back and a chance to extend their advantage but were unable to capitalize.
“I would do anything to go back to us having a 46-44 lead with six minutes to go in the game,” Cox said. “I’d do anything to go back to that moment, because we had the ball and called a set to get another bucket, and we forced a shot that we didn’t want. That’s uncharacteristic of us.”
“A couple possessions we blew where we had a two-point lead in the fourth quarter. We called a set, and we totally took a shot that we didn’t want. That comes with learning how to be in those games and situations.”
Leist had a steal and went coast to coast to tie the score at 46 with 5:07 to play, and Eastern took a three-point lead when Miller canned a three from the top of the key with 4:07 to play.
New Boston was still very much alive, but just couldn’t claw their way back again in the game and ultimately ended up falling 59-54.
The Eagles made several clutch free throws down the stretch to seal the deal and maintain their unblemished conference record.
“Their kids played hard,” Cox said. “Weaver made some big free throws, Leist took care of the ball, Miller made his free throws, and Coach Barrick coached a heck of a game.”
Eastern (6-2, 6-0) created some separation in the conference for the time being. The Eagles have a big matchup looming with Piketon on December 29.
The Tigers (6-2, 5-1) showed they could compete with the favorite in Eastern, and have had an outstanding early start to their 2017-18 campaign.
“We dropped to 6-2 on the season,” Cox said. “But, if you told us we were going to be 6-2 before Christmas, we wouldn’t have been too disappointed.”
“We would have liked to have won this game here and been undefeated in the league, but that’s why you play everybody twice. I just pray that our team bounces back from this and we learn, and we’re able to get stronger from it.”
New Boston will face off against the Eagles again on February 9 in Pike County in a game that could decide the conference.
While they went toe to toe with the top dog in the SOC, the Tigers and their head coach still enjoy being the dark horse of the league.
“You and all the world out in southern Ohio can say that we’re just New Boston, and we love it,” Cox said. “I want to keep being the underdog.”
“I wouldn’t trade my team for anybody, I wouldn’t trade my team for Norm Persin’s team at Oak Hill. I love my team, and I’ll fight for them and they’ll fight for me.”
Reach Benjamin Spicer at (502)264-7318 on Twitter @BSpicerPDT or at Facebook.com/ReporterBenSpicer