ATHENS — Before Saturday’s tip ever took place, Wheelersburg had already been written off.
Competing in a Division III regional final against Canal Winchester Harvest Prep, the Pirates weren’t even supposed to compete with the highly-touted Warriors — a team that had beaten its postseason opponents by an average margin of 35.2 points.
But the Pirates didn’t just compete. They held Harvest Prep scoreless in the second quarter, forced a 29-29 tie midway through the third and forced the Warriors to played at a slowed pace.
Still, in the end, the result was a season-ending 52-38 loss at Ohio University’s Convocation Center. But it wasn’t one where coach Steven Ater’s crew never had a chance in.
“We felt like [Harvest Prep’s] game plan favored us,” Ater said. “They were just able to make a couple more shots than we did. Basketball is always a game of runs and they made one final push there in the fourth quarter that we couldn’t answer. But I thought we stood toe to toe with them, fought and gave everything we had. That’s why I’m so proud of these kids.”
Entering the second quarter trailing 21-12, the Pirates (26-1) went on a 6-0 run, cutting the lead to 21-18 heading into the break. At one point, Harvest Prep stood idle near Wheelersburg’s bench and held the ball for at least a minute and a half — not the Warriors’ usual M.O.
“I thought we responded well and had the game and the tempo being played the way we wanted it to be played,” Ater said. “They were OK holding the ball and we were OK with a one, two possession ballgame. We felt like, if it was that way in the fourth quarter, we’d have a shot. I think it went that way for us. We didn’t quit. We settled in and made our run.”
In the end, as Ater alluded to, Harvest Prep (26-2) used a 17-2 second half run to seal a win. But not before Wheelersburg’s seniors led the Pirates to battle.
The loss forced the Pirates to say goodbye to Tanner Holden, Dustin Darnell, Connor Mullins, and Trent and Justin Salyers.
“We spent four years together and those five guys have been there through summers, offseasons … you get close and personal with these guys,” Ater said. “Your heart is breaking for them. But I’m just so proud of the bar they’ve set and how they’ve raised that bar. It’s a credit to their character and their resolve. That’s why we were where we were.”
Tale of the tape
The two teams traded punches for much of a fast-paced first quarter, playing to an 11-11 tie with 4:58 left. But that’s when Harvest Prep’s Christopher Anthony led his team on a 10-0 run before the Warriors took that aforementioned 21-12 lead into halftime.
Holden scored with 5:40 left in the first half, making it 21-14, before J.J. Truitt and Mullins added buckets to cut the lead to 21-18 heading into the break.
In the third, Darnell scored with 7:18 to go, capping an 8-0 run and cutting the lead to just a single point. Holden then hit a 3 at the 6:41 mark, making it 24-23, before the Warriors ripped off a 6-0 run to take a 29-23 edge with 5:31 left.
That’s when Holden knocked down back-to-back triples, tying the game 29-29. Unfortunately, it was at that point where Harvest Prep went on a 17-2 run to put the game out of reach and effectively end Wheelersburg’s tournament run.
“Everyday, practice was fun and that shows what type of group you have,” Ater said. “This group came to practice everyday, wanting to get better, wanting to work, hungry to learn. I think that showed. Our defensive efforts, our character … that’s what kept us in this ballgame.”
Holden led all scorers with 22 points, nine rebounds and three assists while Truitt and Trent Salyers added six points each.
Harvest Prep was led by Anthony, who scored 16 points alongside nine rebounds while Elijah Glenn scored 14 points. Brandon Beavers was also a factor, scoring six points and grabbing eight boards.
Wheelersburg: 12-6-11-9 — 38
Harvest Prep: 21-0-12-19 — 52
Wheelersburg: 15-46 FG, 2-4 FT, 6-24 3pt. (Holden 3), 27 rebounds (Holden 9), 8 turnovers, 9 assists (Truitt 3, Holden 3). Scoring: Holden 22, Salyers 6, Truitt 6, Mullins 2, Darnell 2.
Harvest Prep: 16-41 FG, 12-16 FT, 4-18 3pt. (Glenn 2), 30 rebounds (Anthony 9), 5 turnovers, 7 assists (Beavers 2, Glenn 2). Scoring: Anthony 16, Glenn 14, Tate 9, Hines 7, Beavers 6.