WEST PORTSMOUTH — Apparently, West’s Jesse Dixon was more than glad to be back.
The host Senators sure welcomed him back with open arms off an injured ankle, as he indeed had Friday night’s hot hand.
That’s because Dixon —the six-foot three-inch senior Senator —erupted for a game-high 31 points including all five of West’s three-point goals, as West withstood a late and furious Wheelersburg Pirates’ rally, holding on for a 67-63 Southern Ohio Conference Division II boys basketball victory at “The Rock”.
That’s right, welcome back Mr. Dixon.
He scored 17 points in the Senators’ season-opening and buzzer-beating win at Notre Dame on Nov. 30, but rolled his ankle extremely early exactly one week later in West’s league loss at Eastern.
The Senators won against Northwest without him but lost at Oak Hill last Tuesday night, and definitely benefited from his presence on Friday night — against the three-time defending division champion Pirates.
He burned the Pirates for 31 on a dozen first-half markers and 19 more in the second half before fouling out —with a mere 46 seconds remaining.
But, Dixon’s departure did make for an interesting final 46 tics, as the Pirates trailed 64-50 with only 66 seconds to go.
Wheelersburg senior Eli Swords, who West held to only a first-quarter deuce and a second-stanza trey, struck the Senators for 18 fourth-period points —including his other three twos and three threes, and his 3-of-4 free throws.
A Swords three-ball and two foul shots made it 64-55 with 46 seconds left, as the Senators left the door ajar just enough — by missing multiple double-bonus free throws in the final 1:40.
Another Swords trifecta, followed by Nolan Wright’s second three of the quarter, got it to 66-61 and 19 seconds to play —as a Swords layup seven seconds later finally got the Pirates to within one possession (66-63).
But Wheelersburg would get no closer, as Noah Coleman —with eight seconds showing — missed his first but sank his second free throw, and Wright missed on the other end as time rapidly ran out.
With the win, which was West’s first over the Pirates since 2013, the Senators raised their record to 3-2 —and to 2-2 in the mad-scramble that is this season’s SOC II.
How so you ask?
The Pirates fell to 2-2, and are 1-2 in the league, as undefeated Valley (4-0 SOC II) and Waverly (2-1 in SOC II) are the only clubs by mid-December without two or more SOC setbacks.
In addition, the Senators’ last home loss came against the Pirates one full calendar year ago — as West went on to win last season’s sectional championship for the first time since 1998.
Dixon was a key part of that nine-senior squad, and arguably was the top Senator returnee for this campaign.
He more than demonstrated his worth against the Pirates —popping five twos, all five West threes, and all six of his made free throws in the second half.
When Dixon wasn’t driving the lane and scoring point-blank buckets or drawing contact, he was swishing triples —from the game-opening and first-quarter closing baskets to three more in the third.
His steal and layup only 55 seconds into the fourth canto made it 50-36, as he split a pair of freebies for the Senators’ largest lead at 51-36 just 30 seconds later.
His final field goal before fouling out made it 64-50, as the Senators simply —without Dixon in there —hung on for dear life.
“Jesse is a dude. He deserves moments like this because of the amount of work he put in and growth he made over the summer. I haven’t seen many kids in my time involved that have taken that step between his junior and senior year,” said second-year West coach Caleb McClanahan. “He is a 6-3 guard who can do anything and score at any level. You can tell what kind of difference he makes for us. We essentially didn’t have him for the last three games, and at the end of the game tonight, he fouls out when we have a pretty wide margin. We’re running around trying to make plays with guys that are really good playing around him, but are not necessarily real comfortable in the situations that he is comfortable in.”
Wheelersburg coach Steven Ater added about Dixon, “we just didn’t guard him”.
In both of the Pirates’ losses, the opponent’s top scorer scorched them in the second half —with South Webster’s Trae Zimmerman being the other in the season opener.
Zimmerman zapped Wheelersburg for 26, prior to Dixon’s explosion for 31.
“We made things easy for him (Dixon). We talked about how to defend him early, but we didn’t do it right. It’s on us as a team to try and figure out how to not let good opposing players have it so easy. We did the same thing the first game. We’re not limiting guys and making them work for their points,” explained Ater. “We’re giving good players easy opportunities and good players are going to do that to you.”
But basketball is indeed a team game, as West has been a prime example in McClanahan’s brief tenure.
The Senators went 10 deep against the Pirates, as Ryan Sissel scored 13 on six baskets —including an old-fashioned fourth-quarter three-point play.
Coleman chipped in 12 on four first-half field goals and 4-of-7 foul shots, including two critical fourth-quarter conversions — prior to his game-saving split.
Jacob Davis added eight fourth-quarter points, on a field goal and 6-of-8 free throws.
“I know tonight Jesse went off for 31, but we’ve talked a lot about improving our chemistry and coming together. Last year, I thought we were a really good team. I think these guys are just trying to figure that out and find their roles,” said McClanahan. “I think it clicked for a lot of them tonight. It’s exciting to see a team come together like that.”
Jack Jordan with 2-of-3 second-quarter tosses and Brennan Overby with a fourth-quarter split also aided in West’s free-throw parade, as the Senators attempted 34 and made 20 —with eight of those 14 misses coming in the final salvo.
Wheelersburg took advantage of those misses and made those fourth-quarter shots, scoring 27 period points to erase the 15-point deficit —all in the final 6:25.
The first half featured four lead changes and four ties, as West led 17-11 following the first quarter —only to see the Pirates rally once and lead 25-21 with 1:49 to play in the second.
The true difference was the third frame, when West doubled up the Pirates 18-9 —with Dixon draining three threes and 5-of-6 free throws, and Sissel scoring twice.
With a minute-and-a-half left in the quarter, the Senators held a 44-32 advantage, which they increased to 51-36 only three minutes later — before the Pirates made their comeback charge.
“Wheelersburg is a really good team and is really well-coached, and is going to make a run,” said McClanahan. “But I’m extremely proud of the way we guarded.We hound the kids a lot about defense, because defense wins games. Wins like this, that’s easy to sell.”
The Pirates’ problem is those scoring lulls — which included only two points in the first-quarter’s final 2:45, only two points in the second stanza’s final 1:49, a scoreless span of 2:11 in the third-quarter’s second half, and finally a two-minute stretch in they fell behind 51-36.
“We didn’t keep our composure enough to stave off the run they made in the third quarter, and we let them stretch the lead,” said Ater. “When you’re not being consistent enough on either end, some of these results are speaking for themselves.”
Against South Webster, Wheelersburg went off for 28 second-period points —before being shut out in the third.
“It’s just consistency and doing things right,” said Ater. “We keep talking about being disciplined. But we had too many turnovers that led to points for them. Just too many simple little things. The final score is four points, but think of all the little plays that we don’t make. Rebounding, turnovers, not stopping the ball in transition, just too many things you can point to that all add up. We buried ourselves in the second half as a result, and we can’t be consistent enough to be successful. Certainly not when the league is as tough as it is. We just have to get better. It’s not about anything else other than us improving every night.”
Swords scored a team-high 23, followed by 14 from fellow senior Josh Clark — on five field goals and 4-of-7 free throws before fouling out with 46 seconds left.
Wright finished with 10 —on two fourth-quarter treys and 4-of-4 second-quarter freebies.
Jackson Schwamburger netted nine on four field goals including a second-quarter three, Cooper McKenzie made a first-quarter two and a third-quarter three, and Connor Estep added a third-frame field goal.
The Pirates return home, and return to SOC II play, against Oak Hill on Tuesday night —while West will go to league leader Valley on Tuesday.
The Senators will likely need another night like Friday from Dixon, although in order to knock off the undefeated Indians, it’s going to take —as McClanahan emphasized —an entire group.
“These kids aren’t afraid to step up and play anybody,” said the coach. “This group is starting to buy into what we’re doing. If we play with effort and energy and we execute, we’re always going to give ourselves a chance. You protect your home court, and try to steal some road wins.”
* * *
Wheelersburg 11 16 9 27 —63
West 17 12 18 20 — 67
WHEELERSBURG 63 (2-2, 1-2 SOC II)
Connor Estep 1 0-0 2, Josh Clark 5 4-7 14, Noah Wright 2 4-4 10, Eli Swords 8 3-4 23, Jackson Schwamburger 4 0-1 9, Luke Swords 0 0-0 0, Cooper McKenzie 2 0-0 5; TOTALS 22 11-16 63; Three-point field goals: 8 (Eli Swords 4, Noah Wright 2, Jackson Schwamburger and Cooper McKenzie 1 apiece)
WEST 67 (3-2, 2-2 SOC II)
Jack Jordan 0 2-3 2, Trevor Fike 0 0-0 0, Jesse Dixon 10 6-10 31, Jeffery Bishop 0 0-0 0, Cole Tipton 0 0-0 0, Noah Coleman 4 4-7 12, Mitch Irwin 0 0-2 0, Ryan Sissel 6 1-1 13, Brennan Overby 0 1-2 1, Jacob Davis 1 6-9 8; TOTALS 21 20-34 67; Three-point field goals: 5 (Jesse Dixon 5)
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at email@example.com, or on Twitter @paulboggssports © 2021 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved