ATHENS — In any postseason contest, one thing is a guarantee for any program that comes out of the Wheelersburg Pirates’ umbrella.
They’re going to fight — and fight to the end.
On Wednesday evening, there was little, if any doubt that the Wheelersburg Pirates’ boys basketball program did just that as Wheelersburg jumped out to an early 7-5 lead and, after falling behind 21-10 toward the end of the opening quarter of action, cut the Harvest Prep Warriors’ lead to a 37-29 margin by the opening possession of the third quarter of action.
However, despite a monstrous 35-point, 13-rebound effort from Tanner Holden, the play of First-Team All-Central District honorees Claudio Penha and Christopher Anthony — who each shot 50 percent or better from the floor while obtaining 24 and 19 points, respectively, answered with an 18-8 run and never allowed the lead to drop under less than 17 points the rest of the way as the Warriors (27-0) defeated the Pirates (20-4), 78-60, in a Division III, Region 11 Semifinal matchup at the Ohio University Convocation Center in Athens.
For Steven Ater, there was nothing more that the fifth-year Wheelersburg leader could have asked out of a team that showed grit in its various runs throughout the contest.
“It’s a tough team to defend,” Ater said. “Harvest Prep has multiple ways to beat you inside and outside. They got hot there and hit seven threes in the first half. So what do you take away with them? That’s what’s kind of the hard thing to figure. Still, I’m so proud of our guys. I don’t think that for one second, they walked onto that floor and showed one ounce of intimidation, quit, or frustration. The guys battled, battled, and battled. We just ran into a team that had an answer for about everything that we threw at them. I’m so proud of the season that these guys have had, and I don’t want this one loss, even though it’s painful, to take away from the season that they had, the character that they showed, or the pride that they demonstrated for their community. I believe that the guys should be applauded for that.”
Over the opening quarter of play, however, Wheelersburg gave Harvest Prep a challenge, especially early.
When Connor Mullins picked up his second foul with 6:05 first quarter of play, Trent Salyers came off of the pine and provided a spark for the Pirates. Salyers nailed a triple from the right corner to give Wheelersburg a 7-5 advantage with 5:51 to play in the first quarter of action, then nailed a second trey from the right wing to answer an 8-0 Harvest Prep run and cut the Warriors’ lead back down to a possession, 13-10, with 3:57 to play in the opening quarter. When Harvest Prep answered with a second 8-0 spurt that forced Ater to call a timeout with 1:44 to play in the first stanza, Salyers again responded by nailing his third trey of the contest — a shot that proved to be identical to his first three-point basket — to keep Wheelersburg within reach as the Pirates trailed by a 21-13 tally after a quarter of play.
Salyers, who scored all nine of his points in the first quarter of action behind the three treys, showed the mental toughness that has made the junior a staple in Pirate Country across the football and basketball landscapes.
“Trent got us off to a good start,” Ater said. “His confidence and everything would be something that our other guys feed off of. He didn’t get to start games for much of the year because of the (broken fibula), so him working his way back in is a testament to his will and his resolve. He’s going to be a big-time player, and he’s a leader and a captain for us. Even with the injury, he was still voted as a captain by his teammates, so it shows you what his peers think of him. He’s going to be a big piece for us going forward as a senior next year.”
While Wheelersburg used Salyers’ trey to ultimately cut the gap to a 21-16 margin on what ended up being an 8-0 spurt, Harvest Prep almost entirely erased the Pirates’ work with a 7-0 run that was capped by a three from Anthony.
But that’s when Holden stepped in.
With his team needing a lift in the second quarter of action, the 6-6 junior scored every one of Wheelersburg’s 14 points and limited the amount of damage that Harvest Prep was able to do in the second quarter as Holden’s relentlessness on the fastbreak and in attacking the basket via halfcourt sets allowed the Pirates to cut the Warriors’ lead down to a 37-27 halftime advantage. Holden then added a breakaway slam and a silky smooth jumper to cut the Harvest Prep lead to single digits on two different occasions as the junior ultimately scored 18 straight Wheelersburg points to bring the Pirates within 37-29 and 40-31 with just over six minutes remaining in the third quarter of action.
The Division I recruit, who collected his aforementioned 35 points and 13 rebounds while collecting a 14-of-20 mark from the floor and a 7-of-9 mark from the free throw line, also collected team-highs of four blocks and three steals to provide a sensational display that left no doubt as to who the best player was on the floor — and left little doubt as to the caliber of talent that the 6-6 forward truly represents.
“There’s a phrase that we keep saying, and that is that Tanner needs to keep being Tanner,” Ater said. “He’s had a phenomenal season, but even here, he’s stepped it up another level as the postseason has come upon us. Over the last few weeks of the regular season, he started locking in on both ends and was disruptive. He had the big games rebounding and scoring throughout the year, but when you put together a night like that, it shows how talented he is. That was a great basketball team, and they had no answer for him. He owned the basketball game. I know that anytime No. 23 had the basketball in his hands, their coaches didn’t feel really good about the situation because they had no answer for him. Unfortunately, their five guys kept putting together a run and an answer to it, and got them back in it. Tanner was fantastic. That should be a big confidence booster for him going forward.”
However, Harvest Prep’s balance on the offense end of the floor ultimately won out. The Warriors, who put Penha, Anthony, and Isaiah Cumberland in double-figures, ultimately took off on the game-deciding 18-8 run behind the play of the trio and Elijah Glenn, who all scored in the quarter. Glenn and Soul Hines, who each added eight points, allowed Harvest Prep to increase its advantage to a 57-41 third-quarter margin, which ultimately grew to a 67-43 tally on a 10-2 fourth quarter spurt that put the game away for good.
“We told the guys that they were going to make runs, and that we needed to counter,” Ater said. “We did that as best as we could. Our kids showed tremendous resolve and tremendous will. There’s disappointment, but there’s no what ifs and second-guessing. They left everything that they had out on the floor for their school, community, and program. As a coach, you have to be happy with that, even though the result isn’t what we wanted.”
Even with the loss, Wheelersburg is in as good of a position as anybody to make it back to the regional stage. Holden, along with fellow double-figure scorer J.J. Truitt, Mullins, Trent Salyers, Justin Salyers, Dustin Darnell, and Ashton Clevenger will all return as the Pirates return seven of their top nine in the rotation.
Still, it hurts Ater — and understandably so — to look back on the affair and know that Mack Dyer and Cole Lowery won’t be suiting up for the Pirates with their graduation dates a little over two months from now.
Dyer, who took on the responsibility of playing as the undersized five in the middle of the floor, played with the toughness, grit, and unselfishness that Wheelersburg players have taken on over the years.
“For four years, Mack has been a tremendous example … it’s hard to talk about because it’s over,” Ater said, becoming emotional as he thought about the memories of his senior forward. “He may not be the perfect basketball player, and there’s times where he might’ve missed shots that he wanted to finish, drops a ball, or makes a mistake defensively. Through all of that, he’s always the first one to take ownership and say, ‘Hey, that’s my fault.’ He’s always the first one to show accountability, character, heart, and toughness. He’s what you would want a young man to grow up to be. Gosh, it’s just hard to know that I’m not going to be able to coach him anymore.”
As for Lowery, the 6-1 combo guard was a tremendous athletic talent who proved his abilities as one of the best that one can find in the Division III Southeast District realm.
“Cole wasn’t even playing basketball before he came to Wheelersburg, and he found a lot of success,” Ater said. “He had a fantastic two years for us and was a starter from Day One because of his abilities. You could see it out there on the court. He just has that natural ability to play the game. He’s athletic, shoots it well, and has that ability to take over games. What I like about Cole is his icy demeanor. He can score 26 points, and he’ll look the same if he didn’t score and just played the worst half of his life. As a coach, you like a guy that’s just solid, cool, and collected the whole time, and that’s something that you wish that a lot of kids would have. He’s another guy that we’ve been lucky to have in our program, and I’m proud that he’s been a Pirate and that I got to coach him for two years. I’ll certainly miss him, his creativity, and his toughness. I don’t know how much people realized how hard he worked. He’s one of the biggest, strongest, and fastest guards that you’ll see. He showed that he could play right with Harvest Prep.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT