WHEELERSBURG — From a 22-point loss to a 22-point win — against the No. 7-ranked unit in the Associated Press Division III realm, and a conference rival that had long since been tabbed as the No. 1 overall seed in the Division III Southeast District Brackets well before the season began.
Is there anything sweeter?
Well, there certainly aren’t many things in the world of sports that are much sweeter than such a victory.
After dropping a 62-40 decision to Oak Hill back on Jan. 19, the Wheelersburg Pirates’ boys basketball program proceeded to erase any memory of that contest in the eyes of their fanbase — while impressing many others around the Southeast District in the process — as the Pirates put on a defensive clinic with its 50-28 blasting of the Oaks on Tuesday evening in Wheelersburg to turn the SOC II race into a very interesting one, indeed.
For Steven Ater, the veteran head coach, who called the effort “fantastic” from his players, was proud of how the Pirates stood up to the task of matching Oak Hill’s physicality with its own physical play.
“It was a very physical game on both ends,” Ater said. “I thought that our kids more than held their own and responded to that style of play. It’s a style that the kids enjoy playing. We made some big shots to extend the lead, and basically put the game away where they made a run late and couldn’t keep the game close. It was a total team effort defensively. It wasn’t just one guy. It was all five guys playing as one.”
Over the first quarter of action, Wheelersburg started fast as the Pirates not only scored the contest’s first five points behind baskets from Mack Dyer and Tanner Holden, but held Oak Hill scoreless throughout the first half of the quarter. While Oak Hill ultimately responded with six straight points to take a 6-5 first-quarter advantage, Wheelersburg’s second-quarter output proved that the Pirates, not the elder and more experienced Oaks, had the momentum.
After a quarter-opening field goal by Oak Hill, Wheelersburg proceeded to hold the Oaks to a single free throw over the final 75 percent of the frame as the Pirates held Oak Hill — complete with Brett Long back from injury in addition to Landon Carroll, Nolan Carroll, Mason Darby, and Mitchell Hale — to just three second-quarter points en route to taking a 14-9 halftime advantage.
“We had five guys that were all helping one another,” Ater said. “It wasn’t like, ‘Hey, this one defender is going to have to stop him tonight.’ Oak Hill has so many weapons that it has to be a total team effort, and for our guys to communicate, rotate, cover one another, box out, and keep them off of the glass in the manner that we did was impressive. It wasn’t even an issue (on Tuesday). A ball may have bounced their way, but I thought that we were in a great position, one-through-five, getting everybody covered up on a shot. That’s really important, and hopefully, we’re starting to play our best basketball here as the season ends.”
As the entire unit began to warm up from the field, it only helped Cole Lowery, who continued his tremendous play with an exceptional performance on Tuesday evening.
After not scoring in the opening quarter of action, Lowery caught fire in the second quarter of playing by knocking down a pair of three-pointers and adding a pair of shots from inside the line on top of it to spearhead a massive 14-1 Wheelersburg spurt with his 10 second-quarter points.
The Pirates, who obtained a 19-9 halftime lead, wouldn’t lead by any less than seven points the rest of the way as Lowery, who added 11 points in the second half of action, finished with 21 points — including three huge three-pointers and four critical free throws down the stretch. Tanner Holden, who proved to be a monster to handle on the glass again, notched seven of his 15 points in the first half as Wheelersburg took control.
“Cole played great,” Ater said. “He hit big shots, drove the ball when he needed to and scored through contact, and made some free throws late. It was just a complete effort from him. He ran the floor well. Tanner was very good at picking his spots, going into the post, and scoring off of putbacks from hitting the offensive glass. Then, he was also good at driving and finishing, which he has done so well.”
As Lowery continued to gather up momentum with his shooting — canning a two-point shot and his final trey of the evening to start yet another Wheelersburg run — the senior got help from his fellow teammates in the form of Dyer and Trent Salyers. A big offensive rebound by the former extended one offensive possession, and a trey by the latter capped off another as the Pirates went on a quarter-ending 8-2 spurt that was ultimately extended to a 13-2 mark thanks to additional buckets from Lowery and Holden.
“Mack had a couple of big scores, and got a huge offensive rebound in the third quarter that helped to continue to push the lead up,” Ater said. “Trent really played a lot of extended minutes for the first time, and is looking like the player that we knew that he would be before the (broken leg suffered in the Division V State Championship contest against Pemberville Eastwood) robbed him of most of this season. Working him back into the mix is important for us.”
As the fourth-quarter began, Oak Hill, who began to employ a press defense to try to get back into the mix, ultimately saw its plans backfire as Lowery ultimately hit each of his four critical free throws in the quarter to keep the Pirates well in control, while adding yet another two-point basket to boot. Holden then capped the game off with two exclamation point-esque dunks to give Wheelersburg the 22-point victory.
“That’s phenomenal,” Ater said. “I don’t think that anybody, going into tonight’s game, would’ve expected that was going to be the case at the end of the game. I’m very happy for our kids, the program, and the community. That was a big win. It was a great environment — basically a tournament type of environment tonight. There was great support from both fanbases, and it was a very loud, rocking gym. It was a fun game.”
With the victory, Wheelersburg improved its overall record to 14-3 while moving to 10-2 overall in the SOC II. The Pirates’ victory over the Oaks dropped Oak Hill to 16-2 overall and 10-1 in SOC II action, and with South Webster (Friday), along with an improving Northwest squad (next Friday), still on the schedule, the remaining regular season affairs are far from a cakewalk for Oak Hill.
Wheelersburg’s away bout with Adena was cancelled due to weather and will not be made up. A Friday bout at West is on the card for the Pirates.