WEST PORTSMOUTH — The late great artist formerly known as Prince partied like it was 1999.
For the West Senators, they were simply celebrating on Friday night like it was late great 1998.
That’s because the Senators accomplished something that hasn’t been done on the West side since then —that being capturing a sectional championship in boys basketball.
But droughts do come to an end — and emphatically so did West’s with only its third sectional title in school history.
In a hotly-contested encounter throughout, the Senators stymied the visiting Fighting Tigers to only three late fourth-period points — and forced Ironton into a hefty 27 turnovers with their patented 1-3-1 half-court trap defense, as West won the Division III sectional title with a convincing 58-42 pull-away win.
With the victory, the Senators raised their excellent record to 18-4 and, more importantly, are sectional champions for the first time in 23 years —and for only the second time since 1985.
The 18 wins are the most since the 22 of that memorable ‘85 squad, as the Senators —much like Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa did that “Long Gone Summer” (1998) in Major League Baseball — spent 2021 chasing down history.
On Friday night, the program made history — all under the leadership of nine seniors and first-year head coach Caleb McClanahan.
The Senators celebrated by cutting down the nets, and broke out some dazzling white “Winators” t-shirts for the team photographs with their fans following.
McClanahan, holding high the net after he customarily cut the final strand, said simply it was all about his players wanting to do what it took to turn the program around —and “put up the number” (‘21) on the banner.
“I’ve never been more proud of a group of young men who, at the beginning of this season, set a goal for themselves. They said they wanted to be the change of this program and set the foundation for a winning program. Our ultimate goal all year was to put up the number. Now we’ve done that,” said McClanahan. “We’re not finished, and we want more starting with a tough game Tuesday night (at Wheelersburg in Division III district semifinals), but this is a great feeling. To see the sacrifice by these young men, especially in today’s age and everything is about ‘me’, for one ultimate goal, it doesn’t get any better than that. We are the ultimate ‘team’, and I’ve said that all season. Our kids are willing to sacrifice minutes and individual points they could be scoring for the ultimate goal of winning ballgames. They’ve bought in and they just want to win.”
Hence, the affectionate adopted nickname “Winators”.
But McClanahan has a very valid point about West’s teamwork —as the Senators’ depth runs about 10 or 11 deep, and they do not have a single solitary double-digit scoring average on their team.
On Friday night, 10 Senators played and eight scored — with Jesse Dixon dialing up a game-high 14 points on four total field goals and 5-of-9 free throws.
Luke Howard had a dozen to follow, tallying two twos, two three-point goals and 2-of-5 foul shots.
Howard’s pair and Dixon’s lone consisted of West’s three made threes, as Noah Coleman netted nine points on four baskets and 1-0f-4 freebies —while Rodney Moore made two buckets and 3-of-4 free throws for seven points.
Luke Bradford bagged three third-frame field goals, Ryan Sissel and Andrew Jones chipped in four points apiece, and Marion Phillips posted the very first points of the game.
“It’s hard for other teams to scout us and to focus on shutting down one person, because we have so many different guys which are versatile and are able to score,” said McClanahan. “That’s advantage us.”
The Senators shot an even 50-percent from inside the arc at 18-of-36 and 42-percent (21-of-50) overall, and amassed 13 assists with 23 rebounds (Bradford seven, Sissel and Moore five apiece), but their defense ruled the roost — especially in the final stanza.
As the contest featured a dozen lead changes through the opening 18-and-a-half minutes, along with a 2-2 tie, the Senators — which led 14-5 in the first quarter —took the lead for good at 29-28 on Howard’s free throws.
The Senators seized leads of 39-30 and 43-35, as an Erickson Barnes three-point goal got the Fighting Tigers to within 35-33 —before back-to-back buckets by Barnes and Trent Hacker halved the advantage to 43-39 entering the fourth.
That’s when West did its best defensive work — forcing a dozen of the Fighting Tigers’ 27 total turnovers.
In fact, Ironton only attempted six shots in the salvo —and didn’t score its only field goal until 38 seconds remained.
When Barnes’ basket went through, the Senators had staked their largest margin at 57-40 —as Jaxon Vance broke Ironton’s epic drought in splitting a pair of free throws a mere minute earlier.
Caleb Hopper had a pair of foul shots to get Ironton to within 43-41 at the outset of the stanza, but he missed both at the 6:50 mark — and the Senators scored the period’s first 12 points.
Dixon, who attempted all of his free throws in the final quarter sans a second-quarter try, drained two just 13 seconds later to make it 45-39.
Dixon then meshed 3-of-4 in the final 94 seconds for the Senators’ final three points —as sandwiched in between he had a deuce and a trey, while Howard hit his second trifecta and Coleman and Moore made baskets as well.
In all, West won the decisive fourth quarter 15-3 —thanks to turning Ironton over time and again.
The Senators — spearheaded by their depth, height, length and athleticism — ran their 1-3-1 with pure precision.
“We’ve seen that all season. Teams will hang with us for bit, but our length, our depth, the energy we play with, it wears on people. You can almost see a breaking point in the other teams that don’t have as much depth as we do. Our depth is a huge advantage for us and has been all season long,” said McClanahan. “We just lean on our defense. That’s how we win ballgames.”
And, by answering each and every Ironton run for Friday night.
The Fighting Tigers took a 20-18 advantage in the second quarter, but West would take the lead right back — leading anywhere from one to nine points throughout the first 28 minutes and 24 seconds.
It finally hit double digits to stay with 3:36 remaining —when Dixon dropped in an old-fashioned three-point play to make it 49-39.
Over the next minute and 50 tics, Howard and Dixon drilled their fourth-quarter three-balls to make it a 16-point (55-39) cushion.
“We told the kids it’s a heavyweight match, and you’re going to take some hits but you have to give some hits,” said McClanahan. “We landed the punch at the end, and that’s what it usually boils down to.”
While West shot 13-of-24 from the charity stripe, the Fighting Tigers’ misses meant more —as they were only 3-of-11.
Ironton actually only missed five of its 20 two-point attempts for 75-percent, but only connected on three of its 17 shots from beyond the arc.
That’s because the Senators contested the triple tries by Barnes and Aaron Masters —who combined to go 3-of-10 from deep.
“With our defense, it’s hard to get in a rhythm with our length and our pressure. We try to force low-percentage threes —from the corners or contested threes from the wings. We have to contest every shot, and allow no free looks,” said McClanahan.
Hacker hit for seven baskets for a team-high 14 points for the Fighting Tigers, which fell to 9-6 with the loss.
Barnes bagged three total field goals for eight points, Masters mustered three field goals for seven, and Will York scored three two-pointers for six.
Ironton, usually a district tournament regular, ended its season on Monday night with a 65-46 victory over Coal Grove in an Ohio Valley Conference makeup matchup.
That goes to show the shakeup that has definitely been the 2020-21 season —where West will be the ones “to put up the number”.
The Senators, the seventh-seeded Southeast District Division III club, will now play in the district semifinals on Tuesday night — and at second-seeded and 20-1 Wheelersburg.
Wheelersburg, the Southern Ohio Conference Division II champion once again, swept the Senators in the regular season —buoyed by a pair of runaway third quarters.
But West wants its third and final shot at the powerhouse Pirates.
“We’ve improved ever since that first game with them, and I think we’re still improving. Mainly on the offensive end. But I believe Wheelersburg has to be ready to lace them up when we come to town Tuesday night,” said McClanahan. “We are scoring the ball better and our defense is still there. We just have to play consistent throughout the whole game. The first two games, in the third quarter, they were very physical and just got into our legs. We can’t have those lulls happen this time.”
Tipoff time in Pirate Country is set for 7 p.m.
Wheelersburg’s second win over West on Jan. 22 snapped the Senators’ eight-game win streak, but nothing can take away the excitement of their sectional championship streak — which stands officially at one.
“It’s a great feeling for sure,” said McClanahan.
* * *
Ironton 10 14 15 3 — 42
West 14 11 18 15 — 58
IRONTON 42 (9-6)
Landen Wilson 0 0-0 0, Trent Hacker 7 0-3 14, Aaron Masters 3 0-0 7, Caleb Hopper 1 2-6 4, Blake Porter 0 0-0 0, Erickson Barnes 3 0-0 8, Will York 3 0-0 6, Tayden Carpenter 1 0-0 2, Jaxon Vance 0 1-2 1; TOTALS 18 3-11 42; Three-point field goals: 3 (Erickson Barnes 2, Aaron Masters 1)
WEST 58 (18-4)
Ryan Sissel 1 2-2 4, Luke Howard 4 2-5 12, Tanner Cantrell 0 0-0 0, Jesse Dixon 4 5-9 14, Marion Phillips 1 0-0 2, Steven Sadler 0 0-0 0, Noah Coleman 4 1-4 9, Luke Bradford 3 0-0 6, Andrew Jones 2 0-0 4, Rodney Moore 2 3-4 7; TOTALS 21 13-24 58; Three-point field goals: 3 (Luke Howard 2, Jesse Dixon 1 apiece)
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @BoggsSports © 2020 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved