WAVERLY —When “Basketball: 30” makes its return to Southeast Ohio, one of its most seasoned contestants will be center stage.
During the 2018-2020 postseasons, Wheelersburg boys basketball teams played nine games at Ohio University’s Convocation Center.
With their 64-47 win over Chesapeake in Friday’s Division III district championship at the Waverly Downtown Arena, the Pirates (15-11) staked their claim to a spot in this week’s D-III Region 11 tournament — and a return to Athens.
“Not sure anybody around thought we would have this opportunity,” Wheelersburg coach Steven Ater said, after the win. “For them to prove a lot of people wrong, I think that’s meant a lot to them to keep achieving and reaching higher. They’re living in the moment and I’m excited for them.”
‘Burg senior Eli Swords was no doubt the catalyst in Friday’s 17-point win over the Panthers.
Swords scored 12 of the Pirates’ 14 first-quarter points to give Wheelersburg a 14-12 lead at the end of the period.
After taking a 16-15 lead early in the second quarter — the sixth and final lead change of the game — the No. 8 seed Pirates never looked back.
Swords scored a career-high 34 points in the win — on 12 field goals (team-high five three pointers) and 5-of-8 free throws.
“Normally I like to take a quick shot and see if it goes in,” Swords said. “Hit that first one and felt like I was in the zone. Didn’t look back and kept shooting.”
With 15 points at halftime, the senior helped pushed the Pirates over the finish line with 19 in the second half.
“He’s been locked in, not just during the tournament. He knew that with all the experience he had, nights were going to get tough. He kept working and working — every game he’s willing to adjust to the gameplan to what we need to do to win. It’s been awesome to keep working with him and this whole group.”
Wheelersburg led by as many as 17 on a few occasions during the second half of their win — avenging a 54-51 loss to the Panthers in the 2020 Division III district semifinals.
“It’s been awhile. Last time we were there we lost to this team, so it feels pretty good,” Swords said, of returning to the Convo.
Fellow senior Cooper McKenzie scored six points in each half for the Pirates, totaling 12 points on five field goals and a pair of free throws.
McKenzie — a OPSWA all-Southeast District third-team selection — said the Pirates wanted to prove themselves over their district tournament run.
“It feels great,” McKenzie said . “You get a chip on your shoulder being from Wheelersburg. Learned to deal with it, thrive under it, and always have to prove yourself. Feel like we did a good job of that tonight.”
With Chesapeake threatening in the final period, senior Josh Clark hit a clutch three to extend ‘Burg’s lead to 52-43 with just over five minutes to play — after the Panthers had cut their lead to two possessions.
Over the rest of the game, Wheelersburg outscored the Panthers 12-4 to secure the program’s second straight district championship.
“I thought we came out strong. Our scout team does a really good job,” Clark said. “They give us the best looks all week and we were really prepared coming into this game.”
“Cooper and Josh, really steady and made big plays when they needed to,” Ater said. “The big block and three after they had just hit one and he answers it. It’s awesome to see seniors having fun and playing that well with their season on the line.”
Sophomore Tyler Sommer scored five of his seven points in the second quarter.
Then Junior Nolan Wright knocked down a corner three in the second quarter that put ‘Burg up 29-24 with less than 30 seconds to play in the half.
Wheelersburg will play in the Division III regional tournament for the fourth time in five seasons — after winning the program’s second straight district championship.
Ater credits his team with facing adversity during the regular season headfirst, and ultimately learning and growing to become a district championship team.
“It goes back to those groups that have set the bar, the work it takes in the offseason and the commitment it takes. All those things are translating and carrying over,” Ater said. “We’ve had some really good regular seasons in the past, this year it was a different grind to get here. That was good because it forced our kids to fight through adversity and face it. Proud of them and it’s hard work paying off.”
Chesapeake’s Ben Bragg led the Panthers with a team-high 21 points on six field goals and 8-of-10 free throws.
Wheelersburg will face East District champion Garaway in the D-III Region 11 semifinals on Wednesday, March 9 at 8 p.m. at the Convocation Center in Athens.
The winner of ‘Burg-Garaway will face the winner of Fairland-Columbus Africentric in the Region 11 final — on Saturday, March 12 at 1 p.m.
Wheelersburg 14 16 19 15 — 64
Chesapeake 12 12 12 11 — 47
Wheelersburg (15-11) 64
Braxton Rase 0 0-0 0, Connor Estep 0 1-3 1, Josh Clark 1 2-6 5, Nolan Wright 1 0-0 3, Eli Swords 12 5-8 34, Jackson Schwamburger 0 2-2 2, Tyler Sommer 3 0-0 7, Luke Swords 0 0-0 0, Cooper McKenzie 5 2-2 12, Kaden Johnson 0 0-0 0; TOTALS: 22 12-21 64; Three-point field goals: 8 (Eli Swords 5, Noah Wright, Josh Clark and Tyler Sommer 1 apiece)
Chesapeake (15-9) 47
Caleb Cox 0 0-0 0, Levi Blankenship 6 4-4 19, Dannie Maynard 1 1-5 3, Cameron Shockley 0 0-0 0, J.D. Daniels 0 0-0 0, Austin Henderson 0 0-0 0, Braxton Oldaker 2 0-0 4, Ben Bragg 6 8-10 21, Carter Collins 0 0-0 0; TOTALS: 15 13-19 47; Three-point field goals: 4 (Levi Blankenship 3, Ben Bragg 1)
© 2022 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved