WHEELERSBURG — For these particular Wheelersburg Pirates, especially at this juncture, style points definitely do not matter.
It’s all about winning the next basketball game in front of them —no matter how glamorous, no matter ugly, and in Friday night’s case, not always about how aesthetically pleasing.
It’s simply survive and advance, and spearheaded by the Pirates’ lockdown defensive performance —Wheelersburg will be back in the gymnasium practicing for at least another week.
In stymieing the visiting and ninth-seeded Piketon Redstreaks to 10 or fewer points in every quarter, and buoyed by nine unanswered points in the final three minutes and three seconds of the third frame, eighth-seeded Wheelersburg went on to capture its fifth consecutive Division III sectional championship — winning a low-scoring 37-28 rockfight in Pirate Country.
Indeed, the final score resembled more of a football final as the Redstreaks’ 28 points was the fourth-lowest tally over ALL of the Southeast District sectional tournament tilts — spanning divisions II, III and IV and including Tuesday night’s semifinals.
For those into counting, only River Valley’s 23 against South Point and West Union’s 25 against Zane Trace in the Division III semifinals —and Manchester’s 26 against Symmes Valley in a Division IV championship —were fewer than the Redstreaks’ 28.
And, while Wheelersburg didn’t exactly torch the nets itself, it mattered little —as a classic reminder that defense does in fact win championship games.
With the win, the Pirates snapped Piketon’s four-game winning streak —as the Scioto Valley Conference runner-up Redstreaks had won six out of their last eight entering Friday night.
The Pirates had been playing better basketball themselves as well, as they climbed over the .500 mark to 12-11 — with their eighth sectional championship in the past nine years.
Given the Pirates’ significant senior graduation losses from last season’s district championship club, this was perhaps the most rewarding sectional title —in the nine-year tenure to date of Wheelersburg coach Steven Ater.
Ater explained the growth and strides his Pirates have made, and the adversity in which they have overcome —from a late start due to the Pirates’ football regional championship game run to a five-game January losing streak in which senior Josh Clark was out injured.
“I’m so happy for these kids. We’ve set the bar high as a program and want to continue to push that bar higher. We’re still alive having the chance to do that. This regular season was a real learning experience for our kids, but I think this team has shown the growth has been there and that they are peaking at the right time,” said the coach. “It’s an awesome thing for us to be together for another week. You see this group really enjoying playing together and working together and fighting together. They have a passion and fire for it right now. It’s rewarding to see them hang in there all season, because the work ethic has been great and their attitudes have been great. To go out there and believe and win a sectional championship, when a lot of people probably didn’t think we would, I’m proud of these guys.”
Ater was most proud of his Pirates’ defensive effort, in which the Redstreaks registered just eight total field goals —five deuces and three treys to go along with a poor 50-percent (9-of-18) free-throw performance.
In fact, the Redstreaks shot just 8-of-29 from the field — for 27-and-a-half-percent.
Truth be told, it was a combination of that plus poor Piketon shooting against the Pirates’ zone —as the Redstreaks’ only opening-period point was a freebie from Tra Swayne with two minutes and 50 seconds remaining.
Wheelersburg held a 7-1 lead after the initial canto, then maintained a 13-11 edge after an indeed offensively-challenged first half.
But the 10 Piketon points of the second stanza were its most in any eight minutes, as Wheelersburg won the second 16 minutes 24-17 —thanks largely to two unanswered spurts.
The Redstreaks failed to score for the final 3:03 of the third, in which Wheelersburg went off for nine in a row —staking a 24-19 claim at quarter’s end.
After a pair of Piketon baskets that made it 24-21 and 26-23, the latter of which was a Levi Gullion layup with 5:45 remaining, the Pirates crafted 11 unanswered points over the next four minutes and 12 tics.
That made it 37-23 for the Pirates’ largest lead —as Piketon scored the final five points in the last minute-and-a-half.
But, the bout started —and ended — with Wheelersburg winning on the defensive end.
The Pirates also amounted 35 rebounds, compared to Piketon’s mere 15.
“It hasn’t always been pretty, but we’ve been getting better defensively with this group as the year has gone on. It’s been a trial-and-error thing where we’ve wanted to see what works. Tonight wasn’t a pretty game from a flow standpoint, but I thought our guys we were really active and did a really good job on the glass,” explained Ater. “Piketon is a long and athletic team that has multiple shooters and all five guys in their lineup can knock down the three-pointer at times. Our guys did such a good job of moving with one another, being connected to one another, and covering each other when needed. We just kept them off-balance. I think Piketon had an idea of how they wanted to attack us, but I thought our guys did a nice job of adjusting and keeping them from getting the ball where they wanted.”
The Pirates only trailed for three minutes and five seconds in the third quarter —when Piketon’s Tra Swayne scored on a floater in the lane to make it 16-15 at the 3:55 mark, followed by his old-fashioned three-point play just 52 seconds later and on a hard foul.
However, Tyler Sommer scored four straight points on a basket and 2-of-2 free throws for the only tie at 19-19 —as Eli Swords sank his second three-pointer, on a corner-pocket shot with 50 seconds to go.
Swords then made a steal, and acrobatically went up-and-under for a bucket with two seconds left in the quarter.
Swords scored seven third-period points, followed by seven more in the fourth frame for his game-high 17, which also included a first-quarter corner three-ball.
The senior also posted a double-double with 11 rebounds.
“Big baskets by Eli at the end of the third quarter. Those baskets just helped us relax,” said Ater, of Swords. “Eli adjusted after just taking shots from the perimeter early on, and we weren’t getting to the elbow or inside their zone. In the second half, Eli’s approach was like ‘I’m not losing’. He was going to do whatever he needed to do for us to win. He had a bunch of second-half rebounds, attacked their zone and guarded really well.”
Ater added answering the Redstreaks’ run was Wheelersburg’s bell finally going off offensively.
Besides’ Swords’ 17, Cooper McKenzie (six points), Jackson Schwamburger (five points), Sommer (four points), Clark (three points) and Connor Estep (two points) all scored.
Clark corralled six rebounds, as he and Schwamburger dished out four assists apiece —with McKenzie making four steals.
“I thought we had some transition opportunities early that we missed out on, but we made that huge run in the third quarter and started taking better care of the ball,” said Ater. “Our seniors especially sparked us. Eli (Swords) and Josh (Clark) worked really together. Then we found Cooper (McKenzie) a couple of times there. Those guys were fantastic and other guys gave us great lifts, whether they started or came in off the bench.”
Swayne paced Piketon with 14 points —on three second-half twos, a second-stanza triple, and 5-of-11 free throws.
Brady Coreno connected on two trifectas for the Redstreaks — while Gullion’s four points, Jayden Thacker’s fourth-period three-point play, and Brent McGuire’s 1-of-4 second-quarter foul shots rounded out the Piketon scoring.
Again, as Ater stated, Wheelersburg wasn’t the least bit about style points for Friday night.
It’s surviving, and advancing, and now playing the Southeast District Division III’s top-seeded squad for a third time.
The 18-4 Minford Falcons swept the Pirates in their regular-season Southern Ohio Conference Division II meetings a month apart (see related story) —but it is indeed difficult to defeat the same team three times in one year.
The third and final matchup this season will take place on Saturday at 1 p.m. —in the Division III district semifinals at Waverly’s Downtown Arena.
“It’s not about regular-season records right now. It’s about what you are doing going forward. And I like our trajectory at this point,” said Ater. “Both games with Minford were one-possession games at halftime. Minford is really good and really skilled and is definitely a challenge for us, but we’ve shown growth from the first time we played them to the second time we played them. We’re thankful to have the opportunity to be playing anybody right now, and if it’s Minford the number-one seed we have to face, then we have to believe we were right there with them the first two times.”
* * *
Piketon 1 10 8 9 —28
Wheelersburg 7 6 11 13 — 37
PIKETON 28 (14-10)
Weston Bloss 0 0-0 0, Levi Gullion 1 2-2 4, Owen Armstrong 0 0-0 0, Brent McGuire 0 1-4 1, Tra Swayne 4 5-11 14, Brady Coreno 2 0-0 6, Kydan Potts 0 0-0 0, Declan Davis 0 0-0 0, Jayden Thacker 1 1-1 3, Hunter McComas 0 0-0 0; TOTALS 8 9-18 28; Three-point field goals: 3 (Brady Coreno and Tra Swayne 1 apiece)
WHEELERSBURG 37 (12-11)
Braxton Rase 0 0-0 0, Connor Estep 1 0-0 2, Josh Clark 1 1-3 3, Nolan Wright 0 0-0 0, Eli Swords 7 1-2 17, Owen Mault 0 0-0 0, Jackson Schwamburger 2 0-2 5, Tyler Sommer 1 2-2 4, Luke Swords 0 0-0 0, Cooper McKenzie 3 0-0 6, Kaden Johnson 0 0-0 0, Zavier Stanley 0 0-0 0; TOTALS 15 4-9 37; Three-point field goals: 3 (Eli Swords 2, Jackson Schwamburger 1)
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @paulboggssports © 2022 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved