SOUTH WEBSTER — It is always a plus when a freshman can play beyond his years in a critical conference bout on the road.
And on Tuesday evening, that was exactly what JJ Truitt brought to the table for the Wheelersburg Pirates’ basketball program.
Truitt, who has already shown qualities that would be easily mistaken for that of an upperclassmen, nailed each of the first three treys that he attempted en route to obtaining nine first-quarter points. The freshman ultimately finished with a team-high 16 tallies, and his output, along with excellent two-way play from Tanner Holden, who chipped in 15 tallies of his own, and a collectively strong defensive showing from Wheelersburg, allowed the Pirates to stave off Shiloah Blevins’ 20 points and a gritty South Webster output on the way to obtaining a 51-41 victory over the Jeeps in an SOC II bout at South Webster High School.
For Steven Ater, the discipline of his unit on the defensive end was certainly a promising sign in the physical and hard-fought rivalry affair.
“It was an oddly-paced game,” Ater said. “We had some mental errors and things like that, but I thought that we guarded well. Holding a team like South Webster, who has good shooters and a really nice, athletic, slashing forward/post (in Shiloah Blevins) that can step out, shoot it, and drive it, to 41 points, is very solid. It was a good team effort on the defensive end, so not a whole lot to be disappointed in there.”
As for Brenton Cole, the Pirates’ ability to play the passing lanes and force turnovers proved to be the main culprit in the 10-point defeat.
“It seemed like there was always something that kept us from getting over that hump,” Cole said, “whether it was ‘Burg nailing an open three-pointer or us throwing them the ball from the turnovers that we had.”
From the outset, Truitt, along with Holden, proved to be tough covers for South Webster as both players wasted no time making their presences known once again. In fact, both players combined to score each of the first 15 points in the opening quarter as the duo continued to play well off of each other, with Holden using his 6-6 frame and quick-twitch movements to get into the lane.
As Holden attacked the basket with a relentless mindset, the floor only opened up further for Truitt, who drained treys from the right wing, the right corner, and the left wing, in addition to forcing a charge within the game’s first five minutes, to give Wheelersburg a 15-6 lead early on.
“The kids fed off of that, and it got our confidence going,” Ater said. “It was a big game for JJ from a personal standpoint. He came out, stepped up, and hit the shots that were given to him, and your teammates will feed off of that and try to give you the ball more as a result. JJ hit some big free throws late, hit a tough shot there at the end of the third quarter, too. He’s a great player, and great players will step up in big moments.”
However, Blevins, as he has been all season long, has been a gamer. The 6-5 junior, who went toe-to-toe with Holden all evening long, continued to show off an impressive array of skills as his eight-point first quarter would suggest. Blevins, who hit a pair of free throws and finished a low-post bucket off of the glass to help South Webster close on a 5-0 run to close the Wheelersburg lead to a 15-11 margin at the end of the first quarter, scored 14 of his 20 points in the opening half of play.
“Shiloah’s something,” Cole said. “When you get him the ball, good things happen. We need to get him the ball. He came to play. It was a physical game, but he likes a physical game. You get the ball in his hands, and good things happen. His teammates feed off of that and play through him.”
While Holden and Truitt certainly came to play in the first quarter, they weren’t without help — and plenty of it — from their fellow teammates, especially in the second quarter. Cole Lowery, who has been a lynchpin for Wheelersburg on both ends of the floor, used his quickness to not only drive and get into the lane, but play the passing lanes and obtain steals that led to transition baskets for the Pirates. On three separate possessions, Lowery drove and finished in the paint, stole a pass and finished with a wide-open layup in transition, and forced a second South Webster turnover that ultimately culminated in a Connor Mullins tip-in after a initial miss from Lowery off of the latter turnover.
“Cole gave us some nice energy,” Ater said. “He got in the passing lanes and got us into transition by getting some steals for us, and his ability to create and drive for others is really good. Connor’s been really solid. He just does a lot of the little things that you look for in a steady basketball player. Defensively, he’s been very good. He got a couple of deflections on plays where he read the passing lanes.”
“Wheelersburg really pressured us well,” Cole said. “They took us out of our offense. When they applied pressure, we didn’t make the right read out of our offense, and didn’t counter what we were doing. It was definitely us getting out of our offense from their pressure.”
The play of Lowery and Mullins — who aided Lowery with his own calming presence in the backcourt — along with the energy that Dustin Darnell and Justin Salyers added off of the bench, proved to be huge, with the latter pair adding eight consecutive points on their own behind two treys from the left corner from Darnell. The result? A strong 15-2 run that turned an early 17-13 Wheelersburg advantage into a 31-15 lead before South Webster closed with momentum by going on another 5-0 run to close out the first half of play.
“Dustin has been shooting the ball better and better each game,” Ater said. “I believe that he’s hit three treys in each game over the last three games. It just makes us more dangerous when there’s more weapons out there, and it makes us tougher to defend. Justin comes in there, and plays his butt off every night. He’s been shooting the ball very well and has been scoring for us. Those guys have been huge for us off of the bench.”
Sparked by its 5-0 run to end the first half, along with the play of Samuel Holstein — who returned in the second half after being saddled with foul trouble early — the Jeeps came out and proceeded to hold the Pirates scoreless for six minutes as the run was ultimately pushed to a 9-0 run behind the play of Holstein, Jacob Ruth, and Devyn Coriell, with the latter scoring four of his eight tallies in the third quarter of action.
Holstein, who, at 5-9, took on the responsibility of guarding the much taller Holden, spearheaded the run with his gritty play defensively on the latter, both on and off of the ball, and helped to hold Wheelersburg scoreless for the first 6:16 of the third quarter as South Webster closed to within seven, 31-24, with 1:44 to play in the third quarter.
“Sam came out, and he had a couple of quick fouls, so we didn’t have him there in the first half as much as we would’ve liked to,” Cole said. “He was physical and kept (Holden) from crashing the offensive boards. Sam did a great job for us tonight. “Jacob had a good game, as well. He really handled the physicality of the game well. He didn’t back down. I know that (JJ) Truitt got off some threes in the first half, but Jacob stepped up his game in the second half, too, and limited his scoring before we had to start fouling.”
”We got impatient in the third quarter, and some of the things that we were doing in the third quarter was not really what we talked about at half, so we didn’t really execute coming out of the break,” Ater said. “That’s something that we’ve been getting better at, but didn’t execute at tonight for whatever reason.”
But within the remaining timeframe in the quarter, Wheelersburg was able to undo the damage that had been done by South Webster by answering with a critical 6-2 run of its own over the final 1:43 as a runner from Holden, another finish inside from Lowery, and a buzzer-beating jumper from Truitt from 17 feet allowed the Pirates to ultimately carry over its 11-point advantage, 37-26, heading into the final frame.
In the final frame of action, South Webster, as it had done in the third quarter, cut the lead to seven points on two separate occasions, and used a 5-0 run behind a Blevins putback and an Andrew Smith trey that cut the lead to an eight-point gap, 45-37, with just over two minutes left to go. On each occasion, however, Wheelersburg had the answer behind the play of Holden and Truitt, who combined for 10 fourth-quarter points on their own, and the Pirates’ 9-of-10 mark from the free throw stripe — including eight straight makes to close out the game — ultimately proved to be the nail in the coffin for the Jeeps.
“Our guys came out in the second half, and were challenged to either fold or do something,” Cole said. “They came out and they fought hard. Turnovers just ended up being our Achilles heel. When you give your opponent so many extra possessions, that’s always going to hurt you. Our halfcourt defense was very good, but we couldn’t get into our halfcourt defense enough because we were turning the ball over, and that allowed Wheelersburg to get out into transition.”
With the victory, Wheelersburg improved to 5-1 overall and 4-1 in SOC II action — its only loss coming in a 69-67 defeat to Waverly in Waverly. The Pirates will play at Valley in what is expected to be another solid SOC II battle — and that battle, and preparing for it, is all that Ater is focused on.
“One game at a time,” Ater said of his expectations. “Just one game at a time. That’s all. Don’t look in the past. Don’t look ahead. We got Valley on Friday evening, and that is all that we’re worried about.”
As for South Webster, the Jeeps fell to 4-4 overall and 3-3 in SOC II play with the loss. However, Cole knows that his young unit has no time to dwell on its past, especially with a future that includes another SOC II home bout against Minford on Friday and a rematch with Wheelersburg in Pirate Country the following Tuesday.
“We have plenty of work to do,” Cole said. “However, the guys are fighting and competing, and that’s one thing that I don’t have to worry about. They fight and they compete every night.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT