MINFORD —The Eastern Eagles are the new birds on the block in the Southern Ohio Conference Division II.
But the host Minford Falcons, by sticking to their defensive gameplan and accomplishing those goals on Friday night, made sure that Eastern’s SOC II debut didn’t go quite as planned.
The Falcons never trailed, were tied only once, didn’t let Eagle standout senior scorer Hunter Cochenour go completely off, and eventually ran the Eagles off the three-point line en route to capturing a 62-52 victory inside the Falcons’ Nest.
The contest marked this season’s SOC II opener for both clubs — and for Eastern, it’s SOC II opener…period.
The Eagles have long been a dominant boys basketball program in the smaller-school SOC I, but with Ironton St. Joseph’s entry into the league beginning with this academic year — Eastern moved up to the SOC II.
The Falcons promptly welcomed them by scoring the opening seven points, shaking off the tilt’s only tie at 9-9 by outscoring the Eagles 35-23 over a span of 16-and-a-half minutes until the 2:50 mark of the third period, and finally withstanding a furious fourth-quarter push with six straight points as Minford made due at the free-throw line for the final 5:35.
As Minford led 54-45 with four minutes remaining, the Eagles’ deficit never dipped below seven in the final three minutes.
The loss was Eastern’s first in three games under new head coach Lakiam Lockley, as Minford moved to 2-0 — exactly one week after winning its season opener at North Adams.
For the Falcons, and 11-year head coach Josh Shoemaker, they executed their defensive plan.
“I’m just glad our hustle and defensive effort all night was there. I thought we really got after it all game,” he said. “These guys do the things we want to do in a game (defensively) and overall, it’s a great team victory.”
Cochenour got his points as expected, a game-high 23 to be exact, but he had some foul trouble and was forced to really work for those points — as the Falcons were able to control his offensive outburst for the most part.
He splashed both of his three-point goals in the first half, but scored just four second-half field goals — along with his 3-of-5 free throws.
His final basket, a slam dunk before time ran out, only made the final score a 10-point (62-52) difference instead of 12.
“(Hunter) Cochenour had been averaging about 30 points per game, so we knew who he was. I thought (Minford’s) Skylar Knore and the rest of the team did a tremendous job just making him earn those 23. Credit Cochenour for he earned every single one of them, but he didn’t have a wide-open look other than maybe one,” said Shoemaker. “He is a great player that really tested our defense, but in the end, we did a good job on our matchups all night.”
In addition, Eastern’s seven three-point goals all occurred through the first three quarters — with Cochenour canning one followed by a pair of back-to-back triples by Brennan Slusher, which tied the game at 9-9 at the 3:20 mark of the first frame.
Slusher (18-16) and Cochenour (20-19), on Eastern’s opening possessions of the second stanza, made two more trifectas — but the Eagles’ next three-ball wasn’t until over 11 minutes later when Neil Leist landed one at the 2:40 point of the third.
By then, the Falcons forged a pair of dozen-point cushions at 42-30 and 44-32, as Eastern’s only other triple was with 50 seconds left in the third — on a corner-pocket shot by Slusher.
Slusher scored a dozen in addition to Cochenour’s 23, as the remainder of the Eagles combined for just 17 points.
And, eight of those markers came at the foul line, as Chase Carter and Gabe McBee both scored five points — with Carter going 3-of-4 at the stripe and McBee 5-for-8.
“Our number-one focus outside of Cochenour was to not let them hit open threes. We really had to make them put it on the floor, and for a stretch, they did a good job in transition and hit three straight threes there in the first quarter after we jumped out with the first seven (points). (Brennan) Slusher did a good job of getting open there and he’s a great shooter, but as the game went on, we did a better job of paying attention to detail and they might have had some tired legs,” said Shoemaker. “But we did a better job of guarding and closing out on the three-point line as the game went along.”
Carter in the third, Jake Tribby in the second and Dillon Mattox in the fourth had one field goal apiece — combining for the three aside from the 14 from Cochenour, Slusher and Leist.
For the Falcons, who better than lead your offensive attack than your football team’s standout quarterback — five-foot, 10-inch junior guard Elijah Vogelsong-Lewis.
Vogelsong-Lewis — the third-team Division V all-Ohio signal caller — paced the Falcons with 20 points, tallying four deuces, three treys, and 3-of-4 second-half free throws.
Better yet, he looked sharp all evening in doing so — as a penetrator, passer, shooter and scorer.
“That’s easily Elijah’s career-high,” said Shoemaker. “And he just looks fluid. He looks more fluid than I’ve ever seen him. This is his third year playing varsity basketball, but he is shooting the ball with confidence, he is getting to the rim, and he’s doing all the little things a lot better.”
Little things — and big shots.
His three-pointers made it 7-0, 29-23 and 39-30, as his steal and bucket made it 42-30 with four minutes and five seconds left in the third quarter.
His biggest basket of the night, however, came with four minutes remaining — and following a full Falcon timeout.
Off the inbounds, Vogelsong-Lewis took the pass and the Falcons cleared out away from the basket, but Vogelsong-Lewis reversed pivot and drove the wide-open baseline — scoring a layup for a 54-45 Falcon advantage.
“The kids did a great job executing out of that timeout. Elijah sold that well, and it’s a keeper play on the baseline, so being a high school quarterback, you would think he could run that,” said Shoemaker. “He did a good job selling it and we scored. It was a big possession.”
Prior to that set play, it was Nathan McCormick making a jumper and driving shot on back-to-back Minford possessions, as Eastern scored seven straight points prior to those possessions — making it 47-45 with 6:13 remaining and with the double-bonus free-throw situation in its favor.
McCormick, who scored seven of his 16 points in the opening eight minutes, made 6-of-11 free throws — but converted his final four with the Falcons in the double bonus to make it 57-48 and 60-50.
Adam Crank, the only Falcon freshman on the 15-man varsity roster, netted nine points on four field goals — and split a pair of foul shots to make it 58-50 with only 38 seconds remaining.
Trenton Zimmerman (six points), Skylar Knore (five points) and Hunter Davis (four points) dropped in two field goals apiece, as newcomer Matthew Risner — playing basketball for the first time since junior high — recorded a pair of final free throws to make it 62-50.
However, Shoemaker said the Falcons’ free-throw shooting left a lot to be desired — and actually left the door ajar just a bit for the Eagles to stay within striking distance at the end.
“It was pitiful. We were 15-of-24. If Eastern comes down and converts on a lot of our free-throw misses, then we might not be sitting here interviewing about a victory,” said the coach. “It’s something we have to focus on. We have to be able to go to the line and knock them down.”
While foul shots will indeed be a point of emphasis, Shoemaker was certainly pleased with the Falcons’ ability to ground the Eagles — and spoil their SOC II debut.
Minford will return home, and return to SOC II action, on Tuesday night against Oak Hill.
The Oaks are also 2-0 and 1-0 in the league — and like Cochenour for the Eagles — present a standout senior scorer and matchup nightmare in Chase Hammond.
Not to mention, Oak Hill has longtime and legendary head coach Norm Persin, who won his 750th career game on Friday night in the Oaks’ 58-21 dismantling of Northwest.
“They (Oaks) are a great team with a great player (Hammond) and a great coach (Persin) coming in here, so it doesn’t get any easier,” said Shoemaker. “We’re going to face a lot of what we’ve seen so far, so we need to be ready for another battle.”
* * *
Eastern 13 13 15 11 — 52
Minford 18 16 13 15 — 62
EASTERN 52 (2-1, 0-1 SOC II)
Drake Ferguson 0 0-0 0, Dillon Mattox 1 0-0 2, Gabe McBee 0 5-8 5, Hunter Cochenour 9 3-5 23, Neil Leist 1 0-0 3, Brennan Slusher 4 0-1 12, Chase Carter 1 3-4 5, Jake Tribby 1 0-0 2; TOTALS 17 11-18 52 ; Three-point goals: 7 (Brennan Slusher 4, Hunter Cochenour 2, Neil Leist 1)
MINFORD 62 (2-0, 1-0 SOC II)
Hunter Davis 2 0-0 4, Trenton Zimmerman 2 2-3 6, Elijah Vogelsong-Lewis 7 3-4 20, Skylar Knore 2 1-2 5, Nathan McCormick 5 6-11 16, Drew Skaggs 0 0-0 0, Matthew Risner 0 2-2 2, Adam Crank 4 1-2 9; TOTALS 22 15-24 62; Three-point goals: 3 (Elijah Vogelsong-Lewis 3)
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @BoggsSports © 2019 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved