WELLSTON — Bryce Stuart, head coach Craig Tackett, and all of Indian Nation donning Purple and Gold were waiting on this Valley rally.
Finally — and fortunately — in the fourth quarter, it was indeed a comeback complete.
However, the Valley Indians’ fate for their first boys basketball district championship in eight years went excruciatingly all the way to the final buzzer at Wellston High School on Friday night —with some highly tense and overly nerve-wracking moments against the underdog Fairfield Lions.
And, to some of course, the final 1.2 seconds seemed like an eternity.
“Last possession felt like it lasted 45 minutes,” said the first-year Valley mentor Tackett. “We knew they were going to try getting something going to the rim. We made some adjustments — wanted to switch screens, stay in front, contest shots, and make sure we don’t foul. Our guys made great adjustments coming out of that timeout and it shows how coachable they are, the maturity they have in the heat of the moment like that.”
Speaking of “Heat of the Moment”, that Asia smash single debuted in 1982 —but 40 years later, the second-seeded Indians are celebrating a Division IV district title.
Jon Bentley’s buzzer-beater for Fairfield rimmed off, and Valley held on for a dramatic 47-46 championship victory on Friday night —inside a loud and packed Wellston High School gymnasium.
With the win, the Indians raised their record to now 20-4 —but more importantly, are back in the regional tournament at the Ohio University Convocation Center in Athens for the first time since 2014.
That year, Valley —coached by Scott Rolfe —was a Division III program, and advanced all the way to the regional championship bout.
But, Friday night’s triumph underscored the importance of the difficulty in winning district titles —as sixth-seeded and a final 15-6 Fairfield, which lost at Valley in the season’s second game, gave the favored Indians everything they wanted.
The victory also avenged Valley’s district championship game loss a season ago — to talented, highly-touted, experienced and eventual Region 15 champion New Boston.
“It motivated me to my core,” said Stuart, of playing with his senior season on the line. “When we struggled in the first half and came out a little slow, I knew I had to get going and get the team behind me.”
“We didn’t talk about last year’s loss (in district final) a lot. Just because I didn’t want to put any added pressure on the guys. But I think they knew this was the round we didn’t get last year. For us to say we took the next step and improved our season, this is a statement game. They’ve been in these moments, and in these moments they just don’t get rattled and take one game at a time. These guys just want to go out and win. I’m so excited for these kids to get to the Convo and experience that atmosphere everybody talks about, and to see this program get back to the Convo,” added Tackett. “It’s been a while, but it’s great for the kids to know they achieved that and got there. Really excited and just enjoying the moment right now.”
Afterwards on Friday night, the Valley players, coaching staff and faithful finally exhaled a sigh of relief.
The Indians, and it wasn’t easy, trailed —aside from a 2-2 tie —all the way until exactly two minutes and 22 seconds remained.
The Lions led 15-6 in the first quarter, 25-17 at halftime and 38-30 following three frames —only to see the Indians outscore them 17-8 in the last.
Yes, the gong finally went off in Wellston —and Valley stormed back from deficits as large as 30-19 and 33-22 in the opening three-and-a-half third-quarter minutes.
But the Indians only allowed 13 Lions points from there—and Carter Nickel, the football quarterback and standout baseball pitcher, put Valley in front for the first time at 43-42 with a tough inside basket.
However, Nickel’s value went up even more in a matter of almost a minute later —even faster than some current, and skyrocketing, Southeastern Ohio fuel prices.
With 48 seconds showing, the Indians turned the ball over against the Lions’ full-court press, and Fairfield standout senior Reese Teeters tallied his game-high 22nd point —with a steal and layup for a 46-45 Lions’ lead.
However, seven seconds later, Nickel scored again —this time off a Stuart assist to make it 47-46, as Valley raced that possession upcourt.
Tackett talked about his charges first finally seizing the lead, and then taking it right back from the short-lived leading Lions.
Valley’s only leads lasted initially for a minute and 34 seconds, and the final 41 tics —with the final 32.7 seconds seeing the Lions look twice at a game-winner.
“They just don’t get rattled. They are so different than any group of kids of this age I’ve seen,” said Tackett. “That turnover, I’m sure everybody on our side was thinking immediately ‘oh no’ But the kids were like let’s go get it back on the other end, and then we’ll get a stop next time. I think that’s the way they take each possession.”
As for that final possession, Fairfield had the ball, as Teeters —with inside of 10 tics —drove and shot and misfired.
But, the ball ricocheted out of bounds to the Lions with 1.2 seconds left —and Tackett took his final timeout to set up a season-saving defensive set.
Valley did defend well, but the inbound to Bentley resulted in an excellent attempt from about 10 feet —although, fortunately for the Indians, it didn’t fall.
With that, the young Indians stormed the court in a massive and wild celebration — and eventually, finally, took a long-awaited district championship team picture.
While the Indians’ offense picked up second-half steam, spearheaded by Stuart’s team-high 18 points on seven field goals and 4-of-5 free throws, Valley’s rally was fueled by its defensive effort.
“Our defense was great and we really locked down,” said Stuart. “We didn’t let them get any easy looks, or any look at all really.”
Both teams shot similar stats-wise (Fairfield 16-of-35 for 45.7-percent and Valley 17-of-38 for 44.7-percent), but the Indians limited the Lions to only 3-of-13 (23-percent) from three-point territory —and consequently outrebounded Fairfield 20-14.
“If you watched us play earlier in the season, who would have thought a game in the mid-40s would come out on our side. We try to get up and down the floor as much as we can, but we knew defense and defensive rebounding was going to win this game for us,” said Tackett. “We were all waiting for that run, but we told the kids that we can’t make a run as long as we’re giving up points. Once we get stops and rebounds, then we can get out and run. Until that happens, we’re not going to be able to get in our rhythm or get out and get in our transition game.”
Defense wins championships of course, and offense wins games —as Valley attacked the basket better in the second half, which was the direct result of rebounds, outlets, and patented transition basketball.
Nickel knocked down a corner-pocket three to get the Indians within eight at 33-25, as George Arnett —in adding a dozen points including his only first-half counters on a second-period three-pointer — splashed a corner trifecta to make it 38-33 just 45 seconds into the fourth.
With Nickel’s first of two go-ahead buckets, the Indians outscored the Lions 10-4 in the fourth’s opening five minutes and 38 seconds.
Finally, that was the charge the Indians were waiting on — unlike their early 21-2 spurt against South Webster in the district semifinals, which wiped out the Jeeps’ 14-6 advantage.
As part of Stuart’s seven baskets, two of them were highlight-reel worthy slam dunks —including a reverse two-handed hammer down during the third quarter, which simply electrified the Valley crowd.
“The first half, we weren’t hitting shots. We told our guys at halftime we have to start attacking the rim, try to get some easy buckets and layups,” said Tackett.
Arnett also went 4-of-5 at the charity stripe, including 2-of-2 with the one-and-one bonus situation — exactly a minute and 11 seconds later for the Indians’ largest lead at 45-42.
Jace Copley added eight points including three field goals — plus 2-of-2 fourth-frame free throws for a 42-41 deficit.
Colt Buckle’s basket in the second stanza, as it turned out, also was needed —as every Indian point indeed mattered.
After all, Valley was rallying to claim that district championship —which can officially be considered comeback complete.
“It’s just so exciting for the kids and the community. They’ve worked so hard for this all year long. I can’t be more proud of them. This game just showed they want what’s best for the team,” said Tackett. “They didn’t want their season to end. It’s an entire team effort for this win tonight.”
Stuart and Tucker Merritt are the only Indians seniors, and will be returning to The Convo on Tuesday night (March 8) — for the Division IV regional semifinals against 23-2 Western.
Valley last played at The Convo as part of the 2019 Division III district semis —and last played Western in the Division IV district semis just last season.
Tip time is set for the prime time of 8 p.m.
“It’s absolutely an amazing feeling. All the hard work has finally paid off,” said Stuart. “I’m so excited to be playing in the Convo again. I was lucky to be there as a freshman. Now, as a senior, I know I’ve earned it.”
* * *
Fairfield 15 10 13 8 — 46
Valley 10 7 13 17 — 47
FAIRFIELD 46 (15-6)
Reese Teeters 9 3-3 22, Jon Bentley 3 4-6 11, Brayden Zimmerman 0 0-0 0, Koben Zink 0 2-2 2, Tytis Cannon 3 2-3 9, T.J. Mootz 1 0-0 2; TOTALS: 16 11-14 46; Three-point field goals: 3 (Reese Teeters, Joe Bentley and Tytis Cannon 1 apiece)
VALLEY 47 (20-4)
George Arnett 3 4-5 12, Hunter Edwards 0 0-0 0, Colt Buckle 1 0-0 2, Carter Nickel 3 0-0 7, Jace Copley 3 2-2 8, Bryce Stuart 7 4-5 18, Levi Stewart 0 0-0 0; TOTALS: 17 10-12 47; Three-point field goals: 3 (George Arnett 2, Carter Nickel 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