ATHENS — Over the latter half of the 2017-18 season, the Wheelersburg Pirates’ boys basketball program has looked like a well-oiled machine that wouldn’t be denied of making an extra leap.
And on Saturday evening, Wheelersburg confirmed just that in a big way.
After trading the lead with the Piketon Redstreaks’ boys basketball program 17 times over the initial three quarters of action in a Division III, Athens I District Final, the play of a smothering Wheelersburg defense in the second half, along with 24 points from Tanner Holden, 14 points from Cole Lowery, 10 points from J.J. Truitt, and nine points from Connor Mullins allowed the Pirates to obtain their 20th win of the year and collect the school’s 19th district championship and regional tournament appearance in the sport with a 66-50 runaway victory over the Redstreaks on Saturday evening at the Ohio University Convocation Center in Athens.
That victory, according to fifth-year head coach Steven Ater, again came down to the poise that his unit showed when first-half adversity struck the Pirates right in the mouth.
“I attribute that to leadership,” Ater said. “I thought that their guys made a run and got up eight on us, and then we made a little mini-run at the end of the half that was capped off by Cole’s big shot there. A couple of defensive stops allowed us to get out in transition, and we were able to gather some momentum there as a result. Piketon’s going to speed you up, and you have to fight really hard against that to not allow that to happen. They did a good job of that, so they deserve credit for that. Halftime allowed us to kind of catch our breath, recollect, and stay together, and our guys didn’t turn on each other. We stuck it out through the adversity and hit some big shots.”
After trading the point three times over the opening three minutes of action, it was Wheelersburg who made the first major push. Behind a trey from Truitt, Wheelersburg ultimately went on a 10-0 run en route to taking a 12-4 opening-quarter advantage as Truitt, along with Holden, Lowery, and Mack Dyer, all reached the scoreboard in a strong 180-second span for the Pirates.
But as they did throughout their tournament run, Piketon never hit the breaks.
With their speed in the open floor ever omnipresent, the Redstreaks were able to close the final 2:02 on a 6-0 spurt that allowed Piketon to close within a pair, 12-10, after the opening quarter of action. Then, Tanner Veach and Tanner Perdue, who led the Redstreaks’ 6-0 sprint over the previously mentioned time, added a layup and a pair of free throws, respectively, to give Piketon a 14-12 lead early in the second quarter off of a 10-0 run of its own.
When the Pirates battled back to take a 20-18 lead behind four points from Truitt, the Redstreaks, again, responded with a 10-0 run that was sparked by eight second-quarter points from Alex Blanton en route to taking a 28-20 lead — its largest of the game — with just over a minute to play.
Piketon looked poised to keep that lead to the halftime break — but remember, it is the Wheelersburg Pirates that we’re talking about here.
With 35.6 seconds remaining, a steal by Mullins allowed Tanner Holden to score on a runout basket, and less than 20 seconds later, Mullins scored via the same way on a steal from Holden. Then, with less than six seconds left, a second Piketon pass was stolen, and Lowery, who alertly raced up the floor, found space near the left baseline, hung in the air, and let a ball go that sailed through the net as time expired to end the first half of play.
The crucial 6-0 run allowed Wheelersburg to close the 28-20 margin down to 28-26 in less than 40 seconds, which ultimately proved to be a game-changing run considering the circumstances.
“You worry about the morale of your team if you don’t counterpunch,” Ater said. “The run really helped settle us down to the point where we were fine. We only needed one possession in that second half, and we knew that we could make that up by being smarter in the way that we were attacking their pressure.”
In the second half, Holden, who matched Blanton’s game-high eight points in the first half, took his game to another level in the second half. The 6-6 junior immediately started the opening possession of the second half with an and-one, then matched two free throws from Perdue with another low-post basket on the other end.
When Piketon answered Holden’s low post bucket with a minor 4-0 run, the Division I prospect answered again with a silky-smooth jump shot from 18 feet that caught nothing but the bottom of the net with Perdue draped all over him, which ultimately started a 6-2 spurt that gave Wheelersburg the lead back, 37-36, with just over 2:30 to go in the third quarter.
Blanton responded with a trey that gave Piketon the lead back briefly, but Mullins responded with onions by nailing a three of his own, with Lowery and Holden adding baskets immediately after that to seal a 13-5 run, and the ninth and final lead change of the third quarter as the Pirates took a 46-43 advantage after three quarters of action.
“Tanner started to step up and play like Tanner, but it’s a credit to our players for finding him and throwing the basketball inside. We got the ball over to the high post some and lobbed it over the top to him, and we got him free on the baseline in the third quarter and hit him with a bounce pass, which allowed him to obtain an and-one on the backside. “It’s a credit to our guys for saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to go back to the gameplan and get the ball inside to him.’ Piketon didn’t have the size to match up with Tanner in there. That’s just unselfishness from the entire team, and it wasn’t just evident with feeding Tanner, it was evident in every situation. We started making extra passes again and moving the basketball around, and Connor hits a three in the corner, which was big for us as we started to build the lead and momentum. That all came off of ball reversal. It came off of swings up top all the way around to the corner, which led to wide-open threes. Those are the ones that guys have taken and made all year.”
But in the fourth quarter, it was Wheelersburg’s defense and its hustle plays that ultimately won out.
With its season on the line, Piketon obtained yet another basket from Blanton, along with a three-pointer from Perdue, that knotted the score at 48 apiece with 5:34 to play in the contest. However, Wheelersburg quickly responded with arguably its best defensive basketball of its tournament run so far by holding Piketon without a final goal over the final 5:34 to seal the deal on a game-ending 18-2 run.
“The guys did a fantastic job,” Ater said. “We made an adjustment defensively and went to a zone look that had a matchup feel to it, and I thought that really disrupted their rhythm and flow because Piketon, instead of running their stuff and settling into their spots, had to hurry to get organized, back out, and analyze pressures. They couldn’t just play. They’re really good when they can just turn loose and play, because they have good basketball players. The zone that we employed is not something that we like to play, but I credit (Travis) Bradford for throwing that out there as a suggestion in an effort to throw Piketon off-balance. It was really successful for us.”
During that spurt, five points each from Holden and Lowery, along with three consecutive critical defensive stops fueled by the play of Mack Dyer inside and the play of J.J. Truitt who pickpocketed Perdue down low after a missed free throw by Lowery en route to obtain a critical free throw himself that pushed the Wheelersburg lead to 60-50 late, proved to be huge in the overall outcome.
“We hit shots and we made free throws, but I thought that the hustle plays were really what defined it for me,” Ater said. “Mack got on the floor for a loose ball, and we got a timeout out of it. He comes up with a defensive rebound that gets batted around, and he goes and secures it and gets it to Cole, who gets fouled and knocks a free throw down. J.J. swipes the ball away from Perdue after he rebounds a missed free throw from Cole, and he gets an extra possession for us there. He also picked up a loose ball, and laid one in while being uppercut. Those were plays that defined the game. We were only down two at halftime, and we were just saying, ‘All you need is one more possession. One more possession. We went and made up about seven or eight possessions with the way that we played, and that was the difference in the ballgame.”
With the victory, Wheelersburg not only moved to 20-3 overall on the season, but earned a berth in the Division III, Region 11 Semifinals that await on Wednesday evening at the Convo. There, the Pirates will take on Canal Winchester Harvest Prep (26-0, No. 1 in final D-III AP Poll) at 8 p.m.
But that preparation will begin soon. For now, it’s time to enjoy what the Pirates have accomplished, especially with such a quick turnaround between sports.
“I’m really happy and proud,” Ater said. “It was a complete team and coaching effort tonight. We get to come back here for the Sweet 16 and play at the Convo for at least one more night. I’m pleased. These kids have worked so hard to get to this point, and have overcome a lot of adversity to get here. There’s a lot of things to be proud of tonight.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT