JACKSON — Is there anything better than knocking out a fierce and bitter rival to advance to the Convo?
The answer? Very few things, especially when that rival is Ironton.
After jumping out to an 11-2 advantage to start the contest, the Wheelersburg Pirates’ boys basketball program held off a strong contest from the Ironton Fighting Tigers’ boys basketball program as Ironton used a 15-3 second-quarter run to obtain a 17-14 advantage late in the first half of play. However, JJ Truitt’s personal 7-0 push allowed Wheelersburg to retake the lead heading into halftime, and the Pirates —despite several spurts from the Fighting Tigers — never lost the advantage as Wheelersburg was able to fend of Ironton, 53-47, in a Division III Sectional Final on Friday evening at Waverly High School in Jackson.
For Steven Ater, Wheelersburg’s ability to fight off Ironton’s physical brand of basketball and adapt to the pressure that the Fighting Tigers brought forth as a result of that physical basketball was, without question, the key to the final result.
“I’m proud of the kids,” Ater said. “That was a physical basketball game. It’s what we told the kids that it would be. It was a war. It was physical from the tip. Ironton is a team that will make you work for everything from the opening tip, so I’m proud of our guys for pulling that one out. That was a tough one.”
Initially, however, the contest looked to be another Wheelersburg runaway. Cole Lowery, who finished with a game-high 19 points for the affair, scored nine points in the opening quarter of action — all behind the arc — while Connor Mullins added in a three-pointer of his own to the equation as the Pirates ultimately took the nine-point lead early on.
“We came out and hit some shots early,” Ater said. “Cole got us going and Connor had a big three early.”
As the half went along, however, Ironton used the physical play of Tanner Wilson, Reid Carrico, and Charlie Large to take control. The trio led the Fighting Tigers on a 15-3 run as Wheelersburg turnovers and the slashing abilities of Carrico and Wilson allowed the Fighting Tigers to obtain a 17-14 advantage by the 3:30 mark of the second quarter of action.
“Ironton did a good job of speeding us up, and we played a step faster than we needed to,” Ater said. “That, along with some of the physicality, got us a little bit frustrated. We got ahead of ourselves, and Ironton capitalized on some on the mistakes that we made. We had way too many turnovers in the first half.”
Truitt, however, proved to be the Pirates’ saving grace in the second quarter of action. With Wheelersburg needing a spark to answer the ongoing run, the freshman, playing in his first-ever sectional final, answered in a big way with two gutty three-pointers and a strong take to the rim that resulted in a free throw. Those seven points (Truitt finished with 11) proved to be critical in a contest that was decided by a mere six-point margin.
“We started getting the ball out of their traps, and that’s where JJ got his threes,” Ater said. “He was able to step into a shot with the ball reversing instead of throwing a pass down the sideline and putting a shot up from there. We settled down and were more organized and in turn with the gameplan. When we do those things, we can be a very smart, athletic, physical team with skill.”
“I looked out there at one point and am watching him making plays in Ironton’s zone,” Ater said of Truitt. “Then I’m thinking, ‘He’s a freshman,’ and it’s like, ‘Wow.’ It’s a big moment for him to be in and play almost the entire game. I’m proud of him for making those shots, not being scared with the basketball when it came to him, and for playing as confident as ever. He’s a big reason why we’re moving on in the tournament.”
The beginning of the second half, however, was where Wheelersburg got going. Behind a pair of threes from Lowery, along with transition baskets from Mullins and Tanner Holden off of steals, the Pirates were able to gap Ironton to begin the third quarter as Wheelersburg took a 31-21 lead with 5:06 to play in the third quarter of action. Then, when the Fighting Tigers closed the lead back down to a 33-28 margin, the Pirates responded with a 6-0 run as Holden sprinkled in his own personal touch with four points during the spurt to give Wheelersburg its largest lead of the contest.
“We were selective with where we pressed,” Ater said. “Ironton was subbing more guys in and out in an effort to wear us out, so we were selective when we put it on. We put it on late, and I believe that it was the right time for it. (Tanner) Wilson was in a little bit of foul trouble, and when we started pressing, it sped them up and made them play a step faster than they wanted to, which allowed us to get out in transition and get going. Those easy baskets in transition were big and are a part of why we are moving on.”
Ironton, however, wouldn’t go away. Behind a three-pointer from Kyle Adkins, his second in the third quarter, and another bucket from Carrico, who scored 16 points in the second half by himself, the Fighting Tigers were able to cut the Pirates’ lead down to a 39-33 margin, and cut the gap to as little as 46-42 late in the frame with 75 seconds to go in the contest.
“We came out and we pushed the lead up,” Ater said. “Give Ironton credit. They just kept making tough shots.”
However, Holden came up big when the Pirates needed him most. The 6-6 forward scored nine of his 15 points in the fourth-quarter, including an and-one layup from a difficult angle as the frame commenced, to help aid the cause. Even though the junior’s technical foul with 40 seconds to play in the contest allowed Ironton to draw within 50-47 as Carrico — who was also fouled in the same sequence — nailed three of his four free throws from the stripe, Holden’s contest on a runner in the lane by the freshman allowed Wheelersburg to close the contest out on free throws, where Truitt and Holden teamed up to nail three of their four combined attempts from the line to seal the deal.
“We started getting Tanner in a position where he could drive to the basket, and he started driving inside and being a man,” Ater said. “He got an and-one there, got to the free throw line off some rebounds, and knocked those down. He’s going to get everybody’s best attention and rightfully so. It’s just getting him to see the fact that sometimes, you have to go get the ball and make them stop you. When he started doing that, we got the results that we needed.”
With the victory, Wheelersburg improved its overall record to 18-3 and advanced to the Division III, Athens I District Semifinals. The No. 2 Pirates will face either No. 3 Portsmouth or No. 6 Lynchburg-Clay at that juncture, with the former providing for a matchup that combines rich basketball tradition.
“Portsmouth and Lynchburg-Clay are two well-coached teams,” Ater said before Saturday evening’s contest. “We’re just happy to play one of them.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT