ATHENS — Down 15 points with just over five minutes to play in the third quarter Thursday evening, things didn’t look good for Wheelersburg.
Trailing Sandy Valley 37-22 in a Division III regional semifinal, it looked as if maybe … just maybe … the Pirates’ undefeated season had reached its end.
Then, something magical happened.
On the backs of seniors Tanner Holden and Trent Salyers, the Pirates (26-0) mounted an improbable second half comeback, using a 14-0 run to do so, and beat the Cardinals 51-48 to advance to the Elite Eight.
Put simply, coach Steven Ater’s team rose from the dead and walked away unscathed.
“I’ll tell you what, I just told the kids they were buried and there was a lot of dirt shoveled on top of them,” Ater said. “They just climbed out of a deep grave that they dug themselves. Give [Sandy Valley] credit. That team fought. Everything went right for them and everything went wrong for us. It took a little while for us to come back to Earth but I’m proud of them for that comeback. That’s huge.”
While Holden lived up to his District Player of the Year reputation, he got help from Salyers from beyond the 3-point arc. Salyers hit all four of Wheelersburg’s triples and was instrumental in spearheading a 14-0 third quarter run to catapult the Pirates back into the ballgame.
When things were tough, Salyers never flinched.
“His leadership … when we got down 15, [Salyers] came in the huddle and he was OK,” Ater said. “He wasn’t ready to give up yet, he wasn’t ready to go home and finish his career. That’s where you trust your seniors. He wanted the ball and we gave it to him. He kind of had that look about him where he knew his team needed him and it was his time to step up.”
Holden was excellent in his own right, scoring 22 points and grabbing 16 rebounds. His play on the defensive side of the ball during Wheelersburg’s scoring run, however, was probably the most important thing he did all night long.
“In the first quarter, we were having some trouble containing the one-on-one drives,” Ater said. “They were getting to the rim. But I thought our guys adjusted well. Tanner covered up some driving lanes with some blocks and deflections. It seems like three or four possessions in a row, he had a block and we’re able to root it out of there, grab it and throw it ahead.”
Tale of the tape
Salyers hit his first 3 with 6:42 to go in the first quarter, giving Wheelersburg its first lead of the game at 3-2. Holden and Dustin Darnell then combined to stretch the Pirates’ lead to 9-4 before Sandy Valley (19-7) ended the first on a 4-0 run, cutting the lead to 15-14.
In the second, Sandy Valley took its first lead at 17-15 and stretched its edge to 23-17 with 3:59 to go, using a 13-2 run to do so. Wheelersburg eventually entered the break trailing 25-20.
In the first half alone, the Pirates were just 9-of-29 from the field and 2-of-11 from deep.
But in the third, they changed their game plan to accommodate their needs.
“Instead of just settling for perimeter jumpers when they weren’t falling, we started going inside, started getting to the free throw line, started getting some buckets in transition,” Ater said. “That’s why we’re still alive.”
After Sandy Valley opened the third on an 12-2 run, taking a 37-22 lead with 5:08 to play, the Pirates turned to Holden, Salyers and J.J. Truitt to turn the ship around. An 8-0 run cut the lead to 37-30 with 3:32 left before Holden got a bucket and a foul to go with 48.3 seconds to go, stretching the run to 14-0 and making it 37-36.
After entering the fourth trailing 39-36, Wheelersburg took back the lead with 4:31 left in regulation at 43-41 when Holden got a putback to fall. Sandy Valley never led again.
After Holden’s 22 points and 16 boards, Salyers finished with 15 points while Truitt added six points and four rebounds. Connor Mullins was also steady, finishing with four points, four rebounds and three assists.
Bryce Kelly led the Cardinals with 12 points and six rebounds while Keegan Offenberger scored 10 points. Dante Tucci also had a good night, scoring nine points alongside nine rebounds and three assists.
What’s on tap
Last season, Wheelersburg ended its season with a 78-60 loss to Canal Winchester Harvest Prep in a Division III regional semifinal. Now, the Pirates will have a chance at revenge when they face the Warriors in a regional final at 3 p.m., Saturday in Athens.
The winner secures a regional title and a trip to Columbus in the Final Four.
“I’m just so proud of these kids,” Ater said. “We had a bad taste in our mouths after last year’s [regional semifinal] loss. We don’t want this to end. We wanted the opportunity to be [in Athens] Saturday and now we’ve got it. We’re 32 minutes from the ultimate prize. We’ve been in this area code a good bit. We’d like to get to the 614 one time.”
Harvest Prep, at 25-2, was a 79-38 winner over Frankfort Adena in its own regional semifinal. The Warriors are an athletic, experienced group who will be looking for their second consecutive trip to the state tournament.
“I’ve experienced some regional final losses in other capacities,” Ater said. “You’re playing a team that’s going to be hungry just like you. Harvest Prep is going for back-to-back regional championships. For us, it’s going to be a short turnaround. So we’re going to try to get mentally, more than physically, ready to play.”