PIKETON — Experience and talent can get you a long way, especially when it comes to navigating the waters of postseason basketball.
In a win-or-go-home scenario, the Wheelersburg Pirates used both — finding a way in the late stages of Friday’s Division III district championship to fend off Eastern Brown’s furious comeback attempt to win the program’s third district title in four seasons.
After the Pirates (22-1) led by as many as 20 points in the early second half, and bolstering a 34-18 advantage at the mid-game break, the Warriors of EB (23-2) cut that deficit to as few as two points at 55-53 with less than three minutes to play.
A pair of ensuing free throws by senior Gage Adkins, a 17-foot jumper by Carter McCorkle, and more crucial FTs in the game’s final minute helped ‘Burg achieve the goal set prior to Friday’s colossal district title tilt — win and advance.
The Pirates’ 66-59 win over EB also continued the trend of Wheelersburg teams knocking out their fellow Southeast District school’s programs this school year’s postseason — as the Lady Pirates girls basketball and girls soccer teams ended the Lady Warriors’ tournament runs, respectively, at the district final stage or beyond.
“Lucky our guys saved me from a 20-point blown lead in a district final. Our guys are pretty daggone experienced, they’ve played a lot of basketball,” ‘Burg coach Steven Ater said, after the win. “These guys have been through the ways, and not a lot rattles them.”
Shots falling in the first half and holding EB without a field goal for the entirety of the first period helped the Pirates’ lead reach 16-2 after the first quarter — and to as many as 16 on two different occasions in the first 16 minutes.
Wheelersburg attempted six fewer shots than Eastern (51 for EB, 45 for Wheelersburg), but converted on a higher clip at 46.7-percent for the game.
“It took us a couple of possessions, but once we realized how they were playing us, I think we knew we could drive and kick and get some shots,” Ater said. “We made some shots early, helped stretch our lead early and kind of settle in after that.”
Another advantage that went the way of the Pirates was the volume of free throws they attempted — and made — for the game and in the final minutes.
In total, ‘Burg made 17 foul shots on 27 attempts while EB shot 15-0f-20 from the line.
Wheelersburg senior J.J. Truitt buried two of his four made threes to open the second half and give ‘Burg a 40-20 lead with 6:30 to play in the third quarter, just before the shots began to fall for the Warriors.
Truitt’s team-high 20 points was tied with EB’s Trent Hundley for a game-high — as eight different players for both teams combined reached double figures (five for Wheelersburg, three for EB).
“He (Truitt) started hot and started the second half hot. He and Carter (McCorkle) get two fouls there in the first half, and we looked for some spots to get them back in. But with Jonah (Lawson), Aaron (Jolly), and Kenny (Sanderlin) in, we stretched the lead out,” Ater said of the early goings. “We told them we were trying to get them back in, but when they were on the court early in the game we were rolling.”
EB went on a 33-15 run to cut its deficit to as few as two in the final minutes, including scoring 12 straight after the Pirates’ largest lead of 20.
“We knew they had firepower and knew they weren’t going to stop. I loved this environment tonight, this felt like a real high school basketball game,” said Ater.
A layup by Truitt at the third-quarter buzzer as he weaved through Warrior defenders stretched the lead back to double digits.
Eli Swords and Matthew Miller connected on first and second-quarter buzzer-beating threes to help bolster ‘Burg’s momentum at each change of period.
“I’ll give my coaching staff credit for that,” Ater said. “It’s something we re-emphasized, started putting stuff in, more ideas than plays of what we want to do at the end of the quarter and we were more organized.”
This was the first time since a Division III district title game in the 2010-11 postseason that the Wheelersburg and Eastern Brown boys met on the hardwood — a game that was won by the Warriors 72-56 at the Convocation Center in Athens.
While this game was played at the wonderful facilities of Piketon High School rather than the Convo, “Sweet Lou” Lou Horvath was the guest PA announcer who made the proclamation that the Pirates are indeed headed to the Division III Sweet 16 — or regional tournament.
At the regional stage on Wednesday at Southeastern High School, Wheelersburg — the champions of the Southeast District No. 2 bracket — will face the district champions of the Central No. 1 district, Worthington Christian.
Led by Liberty University signee D.J. Moore, the Warriors are district champs for the first time since the 2016-17 campaign, defeating Harvest Prep 50-25 to reach the D-III final 16.
Fairland and Fort Frye will play in the second game on Wednesday at Southeastern, as the two winners will meet in a Division III regional final set for Saturday, March 13.
Tipoff time is set for 7 p.m.
“Players get to enjoy it tonight and coaches get to work,” Ater said of the week ahead. “Gives us some time to prepare, because we’ve been here before. We’ve run into the Central District before, and it’s been what has put us out of the tournament. Get to face a really good Worthington Christian team, already a Division I player and a lot of length and size around him. This stage is fun though, kind of like the NCAA tournament where you get a couple days to prepare and then you play. At this point, I think experience helps and I think we’re going to see a similar team to Eastern Brown on Wednesday night.”
* * *
Eastern Brown 2 16 20 21 — 59
Wheelersburg 16 18 14 18 — 66
EASTERN BROWN 59 (23-2)
Ryan Boone 1 1-3 4, Luke Garrett 6 1-3 16, Colton Vaughn 4 5-6 13, Andres Vargas 1 0-0 2, Ethan Daniels 2 0-0 4, Christian Hoskins 0 0-0 0, Trent Hundley 5 8-9 20, Christian Amburgey 0 0-0 0; TOTALS 19 15-21 59; Three-point field goals: 6 (Luke Garrett 3, Trent Hundley 2, Ryan Boone 1); Shooting: 19-51 (6-19 from 3-point); Rebounds: 25 (Ryan Boone, Luke Garrett, Colton Vaughn 6 apiece); Turnovers: 11; Steals: 7 (Trent Hundley 4)
WHEELERSBURG 66 (22-1)
Aaron Jolly 1 0-0 2, Matthew Miller 3 3-3 10, Eli Swords 3 2-5 10, Jonah Lawson 0 0-0 0, Carter McCorkle 5 0-0 10, J.J. Truitt 6 4-7 20, Gage Adkins 0 4-6 4, Kenny Sanderlin 3 4-6 10; TOTALS 21 17-27 66; Three-point field goals: 7 (J.J. Truitt 4, Eli Swords 2, Matthew Miller 1); Shooting: 21/45 (7-18 from 3-point); Rebounds: 33 (Carter McCorkle 12); Turnovers: 14; Steals: 6 (Aaron Jolly and Eli Swords 2 apiece; Gage Adkins and Matthew Miller 1 apiece)
Reach Jacob Smith at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @JacobSmithPDT © 2020 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved