ATHENS — Upon hearing that his team had gone 15-of-16 from the free throw line in the fourth quarter in exercising its poise, yet again, in a crucial matchup against a well-tested opponent, the head coach of the Wheelersburg Pirates’ boys basketball program, Steven Ater, said “Geez” in amazement of the stat.
His only question: “Who missed the free throw?”
When told it was Trent Salyers, who missed the first of his two free throw attempts on his second trip to the charity stripe in the fourth quarter of action, Ater smiled and said, “He’s walking back.”
It may have been only three words, but the light-hearted response to the Division V State Championship winning quarterback’s missed free throw said all one needed to know about the second half, and how good it truly was from every individual who took the floor.
Wheelersburg, who trailed Lynchburg-Clay after a 25-24 first-half deficit to the Mustangs, took off on a 9-0 run to start the third quarter of action en route to putting together a 16-5 tilt in the frame, then used the standout shooting mark from the stripe to embark on a 17-4 fourth-quarter spurt that turned a two-possession game totally out of reach as the Pirates advanced to the Division III District Finals for the first time since the 2013-14 season on Saturday evening with a 66-51 victory in a Division III, Athens I District Semifinal at the Ohio University Convocation Center.
The victory, which moved Wheelersburg’s mark to a strong 20-3, was just the latest example of the Pirates’ persistence on all counts, according to Wheelersburg’s fifth-year leader.
“Lynchburg-Clay has an innate ability to hang around in games that look sloppy and ugly, and that’s to their credit because they make it look that way,” Ater said. “They switch up their defensive looks, their guys play extremely hard, and they’re well-coached. I’m just really proud of our guys. We came into the locker room at halftime, we’re down one, and it was just, ‘We’re OK. We just need to make a few adjustments, and start attacking the right way like we talked about in the gameplan.’”
From the opening tip, Tanner Holden, once again, was on his game. The 6-6 junior standout got off to a strong start by grabbing a rebound in traffic and putting the board back up off the glass, then drove inside for a layup. Then, after drawing contact that resulted in a pair of free throws, Holden found himself wide-open from the free throw line, stepped into a rhythm jumper, and made the Lynchburg-Clay defense pay for giving him so much room to operate as Wheelersburg took a 13-9 lead behind the multi-sport athlete’s eight-point first-quarter outing.
Then, when the Mustangs opened up the second quarter of play by going on a 9-3 spurt to take an 18-16 lead, Holden — who had 997 points to this point — knocked down an open three-pointer from the right corner to obtain the 1,000th point of his high school basketball career.
The moment, which, ironically, occurred at one of the universities that has offered the junior a full-ride scholarship to play basketball as part of its institution, was just the latest highlight in a career that has already had its fair share of defining moments. Holden ultimately matched J.J. Truitt with a team-high 17 points en route to finishing the day with 1,006 points in a Wheelersburg uniform, but was arguably just as impressive on the defensive end with his play on Lynchburg-Clay standout Eric McLaughlin, who had to earn every bit of his 19 points.
“We knew that coming in, Tanner needed 11 points to eclipse the 1,000-point mark for his career,” Ater said. “It’s a unique environment to score 1,000 points in, and there certainly isn’t a much better way to do it than the way that he did it. He’s knocking that feat off as a junior, and that’s something special by itself. Congratulations is certainly in order for him.”
“It was great, especially to do it here at the Convo,” Holden said. “I didn’t really think about it at the time. I haven’t been keeping up with the 1,000-point mark. It kind of shocked me when the three that went down was the actual 1,000-point bucket, and although the moment was shocking, I had to keep going, keep my focus, and keep from getting involved in the hype. That’s just how that happened, and it was certainly a great feeling, but the attention had to be about doing the necessary things to get the win.”
But with less than a minute to go, McLaughlin — a terrific talent in his own right — found space on the right wing and splashed a trey through contact, which allowed the senior to obtain a four-point play and give the Mustangs a 22-19 advantage. Connor Mullins answered McLaughlin’s play with a basket from inside the paint area, but Damin Pierson’s second three-ball of the quarter — and Lynchburg-Clay’s fifth of the first half — allowed the Mustangs to take a 25-24 halftime advantage even as Truitt showed nerves of steel by answering back with a three-point bomb of his own. Despite the great defense from Holden, McLaughlin certainly showed the crowd in attendance his impressive athleticism, shooting ability, and feel for the game of basketball.
“Their shooters got free for some open looks, and we didn’t do a good job of staying with the guys that we needed to,” Ater said. “(Eric) McLaughlin’s a phenomenal player, too. He’s had a heck of a career and has nothing to be ashamed of. He played in Columbus (back in 2016). That’s a really, really good player and a quality team that we just beat.”
But even though Lynchburg-Clay was able to take the one-point lead heading into halftime, the game never really felt like it was outside of Wheelersburg’s control — and that was due to the impressive poise that was evident in the locker room at the intermission.
“There was no panicking,” Ater said. “When I walked into the locker room at halftime, there was no, ‘Oh, woe is me.’ It was, ‘OK, what do we need to do to fix this,’ and, ‘We’ll be fine in the second half,’ and we were.”
And in the second half of action, Wheelersburg wasted no time taking control.
Behind strong play from Mullins and Truitt, the pair — who each boast silky smooth jump shots with their games — scored each of the Pirates’ tallies during a critical 9-0 spurt, with Mullins knocking down a huge trey from the top of the circle that helped give Wheelersburg a 33-25 advantage off of the run.
Lynchburg-Clay cut the Pirates’ lead to six twice off of a low-post basket from Raymond Conner and a three-pointer from Pierson, but on each occasion, Truitt and Holden were there to answer with a free throw, a critical jumper, or a putback to keep Wheelersburg in front as the pair ultimately combined for 13 of the Pirates’ 22 points in the third quarter, with Mullins adding five more on his own. Another big trey by Salyers — which helped stretched the Wheelersburg lead to as much as 14, as well as a bucket from Lowery, allowed the Pirates to ultimately claim a 47-38 advantage after three quarters of play.
“J.J. was great,” Ater said. “Cole was great, too. Their defensive attention to Cole, because of how well he’s played this year, opened up other guys to get shots. Connor knocked down a jumper stepping into the paint there in the second quarter, and hit a big three in the second half and made some big plays, and Trent was really good for us and played major minutes off of the bench. Before the game, we talked, and we said, ‘We’ve got to have everybody.’ Some of the guys didn’t play their normal minutes, but were crucial there for us to give guys blows, and allow us to pull out the game in the fourth.”
“It’s been great,” Holden said of playing with his teammates. “These guys are like my brothers. Before games, we’re laughing and joking, but I believe that we really know how to get serious when it’s time to focus. They’re really just my brothers. I can tell them anything, and we really just go to war together. It’s great to play with these guys.”
Lynchburg-Clay, however, made things interesting early in the fourth quarter. Behind four points from McLaughlin and a three-ball from Austin Hilt, the Mustangs’ 7-1 spurt in the frame carried Lynchburg-Clay to within two possessions of Wheelersburg.
However, the Pirates never panicked once — and that was evident simply on the game’s very next possession. After McLaughlin’s bucket cut the lead to a 49-45 tally, Lowery used a nifty pass fake to free himself up for a layup with 4:09 to play in the contest, and from there, Holden and Truitt — who also finished with 17 along with Holden — took over again as their committed drives to the basket allowed the pair to combine for a perfect 10-of-10 from the free throw line. Lowery then capped off the run by scoring off of a beautiful behind-the-back pass by Holden and added two runout layups for good measure to finish with 11 — and cap off a 17-4 run in doing so.
“We threw a little wrinkle at them defensively that they weren’t prepared for, and it forced them into some turnovers, which allowed us to get extra possessions and settle down. I think we felt like we were on the run a little bit during the second quarter, because they did a good job gaining momentum by hitting some shots. The credit goes to our guys. We didn’t panic, and again, I believe that’s because these guys know how to win. They’ve won a lot in all of the sports that they’ve participated in here at Wheelersburg, so they know what it takes to be successful.”
With the victory, the Pirates will move on to the Division III, Athens I District Finals. It is the third time in Ater’s five seasons that Wheelersburg has earned a trip to that stage, and will be the first since 2015, when ‘Burg, as a No. 11 seed, made it there.
“(Perdue) is a fantastic player, and Piketon has had a strong season,” Ater said. “They’re a No. 1 seed for a reason in our bracket, so now, we get to come into this game as the underdog, and try to knock them off. They’re athletic, they pressure you, and they can shoot it. We keep seeing these teams that have one fantastic player, but Piketon has a lot of other guys that can step up, knock shots down, and make plays. It’ll be a good challenge for us.”
For now, however, Wheelersburg will revel and take in the accomplishment that one of their own just set — which is just another in what will be a long line to come for the 6-6 standout.
“It’s a great feeling,” Holden said. “It’s just a great accomplishment to have. The support that my family, my teammates, and my coaches have provided to me has been unreal. They’ve been there since Day One and have really helped me along the way.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT