An out of conference meeting between the OVC’s Portsmouth Trojans and the SOC’s Wheelersburg Pirates on Saturday night was a gift for basketball fans in the area.
Two days before the Christmas holiday, fans filled the bleachers at Wheelersburg High School for a showdown between the Trojans and Pirates.
Wheelersburg students dressed in their best Christmas sweaters and donned red and green, while Portsmouth students countered with a camo look for a Trojan army theme.
Ultimately, it was the Pirates who jingle bell rocked their way to a 56-47 victory.
Confidence might not have been what Wheelersburg players asked Santa Claus for Christmas this year, but that’s just one of the presents they’ll be receiving after the win according to their head coach.
“It’s a big confidence booster, because [Portsmouth] is as good a team as there is in the area I think,” Pirates head coach Steven Ater said. “Southeast Ohio, division three, I think you’d be hard pressed to find many better.”
“That’s a team that you would probably look at as a favorite to get to The Convo. So, for us going in to Christmas break bouncing back from Tuesday, it’s a lot of confidence.”
A rivalry game between the two schools fell into the hands of Wheelersburg, and Portsmouth head coach Gene Collins gave the Pirates their due diligence afterwards.
“Our kids played hard and Wheelersburg played hard,” Trojans head coach Gene Collins said. “It’s a rival game that we’ve been used to winning, and we didn’t win this one. We’ve just got to chalk it up to the fact that we weren’t really bad, I would say they were really good.”
“Sometimes you’ve got to step back and say hey they were the better team tonight. We’ve got to go back to work next week and get better.”
Entering the game, Ater was worried that his Pirates players would be a bit wore down having played a game the night before.
“I was really happy with the way we played after a game last night and they didn’t,” Ater said. “We played seven guys and gritted out a tough win.”
“I was worried about our legs, and can we sit down and guard. That’s as talented of an offensive team as we’ll probably face all year, and for us to sit down and hold them to 47 points, I’m very proud of our defensive effort tonight.”
As the game began early, though, Wheelersburg was faced with plenty of adversity.
Portsmouth came out seemingly unstoppable on offense to begin the game, staking a claim to a quick 7-0 lead at the 4:31 mark of the first.
Matthew Fraulini got things going on a three-pointer for the Trojans, and hit a jump shot from an offensive rebound to make the count 7-0.
Fraulini would finish with a team-high 14 points for Portsmouth, but did most of his damage in the early part of the contest.
The Pirates got on the board with 4:05 to play on a nice pump fake from J.J. Truitt that allowed the freshman to get a good look at the basket.
Truitt was impressive throughout for Wheelersburg, winding up with a game-high 15 points.
“JJ Truitt was fantastic,” Ater said. “For a freshman to come in and defensively lead us with charges, he’s also all over the glass. He plays very solid, doesn’t turn it over a whole lot, and knocks down big shots.”
The score cut the deficit to 7-2, but the Trojans responded rapidly with another three from Fraulini.
Ater took a quick timeout, at the 3:51 mark, and the Pirates rallied after heading back on the court.
With 59 seconds remaining in the first, Wheelersburg caught a lucky break on a saved ball out of bounds. A Pirates player grabbed the ball before it went out and flung it behind him, finding the hands of Mack Dyer for an easy layup.
The Dyer score cut the lead to 12-10, and Wheelersburg was back in it.
However, Portsmouth had other ideas and went on a 5-0 run to close out the quarter, capped off by a Daniel Jordan three-pointer from the left corner as the buzzer sounded.
Jordan was fed on the play from a nice pass from Reese Johnson. Jordan, the senior, finished with 10 points for the Trojans who had a 17-10 lead after one.
Fraulini kept the hot hand to open the second quarter, but Tanner Holden came alive to lead the Pirates on a quick run.
Trailing 19-10, Wheelersburg would score 11 straight points and take a 21-19 lead on a three from Truitt with around five minutes before the half.
The streak was aided in large part by Holden, who was able to get out in transition for some quick scores to cut the lead.
“Tanner got us going there when we were behind in the second quarter with some transition baskets attacking the paint,” Ater said.
Holden scored six points during the span, and finished with 14 overall in the game.
“I think early on in the game we were able to keep Tanner Holden in front of us,” Collins said. “When we played with our defense set, they had four points. They cranked their defense up, turned us over and got it in the open court, and once they got it in the open court our lead went from nine to them ahead.”
“I thought we did as good a job as we could against Holden in the half court. Once he got in the open court, there’s just no answer for that.”
The Pirates would take a 28-24 lead into halftime.
Back on the court, Portsmouth scored seven straight points to open up the third quarter.
Jordan started the third with a nice drive finished off with a spin move at the rim for an open layup. Isaac Kelly hit a three the next possession, and Jordan sank two free throws to put the Trojans back on top 31-28 with 6:17 in the quarter.
Truitt later hit a free throw for Wheelersburg to make it 31-29, and the Pirates would put themselves back in front with two more triples.
First, Connor Mullins sank a three with 4:52 to go in the quarter to put Wheelersburg ahead 32-31. Then, Cole Lowery followed up the Mullins trey with one of his own to give the Pirates a 35-31 edge.
Trading points, Portsmouth was behind late in the quarter. Kelly hit a three on a nice assist from Fraulini with 2:32 to play to tie the score at 37 all.
Holden quickly answered to put Wheelersburg up again, and a Justin Salyers basket gave the Pirates a 41-37 lead.
Salyers, along with Dustin Darnell, were big off the bench for Wheelersburg throughout.
“What I really liked is all seven guys [tonight] were really big contributors,” Ater said. “Dustin Darnell and Justin Salyers were fantastic off the bench, and if one of those guys were out tonight we would have had a hard time pulling that one out.”
Kelly hit a jumper with a minute to go to make the score 41-39, and that would be the count after three.
In the fourth, the Pirates pulled away quickly with consecutive three-pointers. It was Darnell first, then Salyers who found the net to give Wheelersburg a 47-39 lead.
On the two possessions, Ater liked the patience he saw from his group to ensure they got a good look.
“I liked our patience in the late third and early fourth quarter offensively,” Ater said. “We were quick with some of our offensive possessions, and then I thought we did a good job with a few skip passes to hit some jumpers backside.”
“They were packing it in and trying to protect the paint, so those guys stepped up and shared the basketball, all that’s good stuff.”
Collins took a timeout for the Trojans with 6:42 remaining in the game.
Portsmouth point guard DJ Eley answered back with a three out of the timeout to cut the score to 47-42, and the Trojans cut the score to 48-44 with 4:12 to play on a layup from Danny Lattimore.
However, Portsmouth couldn’t bring themselves all the way back and wound up falling 56-47.
Several players stepped up big to make their free throws for the Pirates late in the game, and Wheelersburg won a big out of conference matchup.
“It was the first time I’ve seen them work and really start to find their rhythm,” Ater said. “For a team that’s coming off football three weeks ago, we know it’s going to take time to develop. But, that’s the first time I’ve seen it, and as a coach you’re like ok maybe we’re hitting our stride a little bit.”
While the offense got the job done, it was the defense that kept the Pirates ahead late. Ater said there were no different adjustments made leading up to the game.
“We just said we’re going to play them straight up,” Ater said. “We kind of know their shooters, and that they’ve got the size they can go inside and get you on the offensive glass.”
“They can put you on the floor and go by, they’re a complete team. Coach Collins does a fantastic job every year of just molding around who he has and they play hard for him.”
Wheelersburg was able to take away some elements of the game for the Trojans, which impacted the outcome.
“I think they did a real good job of closing out on our guys,” Collins said. “Hats off to them, they really guarded us and we just had some shots that didn’t fall.”
“They took us out of some stuff we wanted to do. We never did get anything established in the post, and to their credit that caused us to be very perimeter oriented.”
Although Collins and his team fell short, there were some key takeaways for Portsmouth to learn from.
“We’ve got to learn early in the year on the road against a really good team you’ve got to take care of the ball and get some things established in the post,” Collins said. “When you play good teams, you’ve got to be able to execute your offense.”
“When they take things away, you’ve got to be able to counter. When they took things away from us, we just kind of stood around.”
Heading in to the holiday break, both schools will look to improve their game in practice. Wheelersburg will host Wellston on December 29, and Portsmouth hosts the Wendy’s Classic at their home floor beginning on the same day.
Reach Benjamin Spicer t (502)264-7318 on Twitter @BSpicerPDT or at Facebook.com/ReporterBenSpicer