VANDALIA — The No. 11 seeded National Trail boys were no strangers to close games this season.
The Blazers had previously played in four games decided by three or fewer points, holding a 1-3 record in those games – a two-point win over Legacy Christian, a one-point loss to Bethel and two-point losses to Preble Shawnee and Miami East.
Late in last Thursday’s contest against No. 13 Stivers School for the Arts (4-7), the Blazers and coach Mike Harrison faced another matchup coming down to the wire, tied at 44 with 4:47 remaining to move on in the Division III sectional finals.
Two straight buckets for the Tigers gave them a four-point lead, and after a foul on Trail senior Cameron Harrison and a trip to the free throw line, the Blazers trailed 48-45 with 2:27 remaining.
After a stop on the defensive end, Trail got up the court and worked the ball to an open Harrison at the top of the arc. Preble County’s all-time leading scorer took the open 3-pointer, but after it bounced out, the center referee called that the ball hit the supports of the backboard, giving Stivers possession.
Trail’s players, bench and fans all contested the call, which was not immediately confirmed by either of the other two referees.
After a brief meeting, the call stood, and Stivers immediately hit a 3-pointer at the other end to make it a six-point game.
Trail junior Ethan Murphy responded with a 3-pointer to make it 51-48 with 1:13 remaining.
Neither team scored on their next possession, but after Trail’s shot, a defensive breakdown led to a fastbreak score by the Tigers, giving them a 53-48 lead with 23 seconds remaining.
Harrison scored quickly to make it 53-50 with eight seconds left, but the Blazers were forced to foul, and Stivers ran the clock out to make the final 54-50.
”We actually only had eight turnovers — [I] thought we did pretty well as far as that goes, but there were a couple costly turnovers late that hurt us, and their pressure may not have turned us over a lot, but it did force us into some tough shots and got us out of our rhythm,” Coach Harrison said.
Trail jumped out to an early 10-2 lead as Harrison scored the team’s first seven points.
Boosted by a strong rebounding game, however, Stivers closed the first quarter on an 8-4, eventually taking a 19-14 lead midway through the second quarter.
The Tigers would finish the game with a 36-18 rebound advantage over the Blazers, with a number of them coming on the offensive glass.
“We felt going in if we could hold our own on the glass and take care of the ball and limit their transition points we would have a great chance,” Coach Harrison said. “Unfortunately, they outscored 12-2 on second chance points, were able to score 36 points in the paint, and had 21 transition points on us, so obviously we weren’t able to control those things like we would have liked.”
Down 23-19, Trail closed out the first half on a 12-3 run, boosted by four late points from senior Tyler Weathington, to take a 31-26 lead into the half. This was tied for the largest lead of the game by either team.
The teams continued to battle in the second half, with the deficit for either team not surpassing five points. After trailing for all of the third quarter, Stivers hit a late 3-pointer to take a 41-38 lead into the fourth.
Despite holding the lead, Trail struggled finding the basket in the second half, scoring just 19 after a 31-point first half. 13 of those 19 points came from Harrison and Weathington.
“In the first half their one-on-one full court pressure did not bother us — we were able to get into our stuff and get good shots most every trip,” Coach Harrison said. “In the second half, they began running a second guy at Cameron every time he touched it to force the ball out of his hands and we weren’t able to get into the same rhythm. We took a few tough shots but also just didn’t hit some of the good looks we were able to get — I think our legs had left us by that time as the constant pressure had started taking its toll.”
Harrison hit a 3-pointer as the fourth quarter began to tie it at 41, and trips to the free throw line by both teams would tie it at 44 before the Blazers would go on to lose.
Harrison led the Blazers with 21 points, followed by Weathington with 13. Senior Elijah Stewart, junior Wyatt House and Murphy all finished with five points as junior Michael Leal added a free throw.
“The seniors had a very good four years here with us,” Coach Harrison said. “A couple district finals appearances, a conference championship. This year wasn’t what we had hoped for but overall they have been a huge part of a lot of success here. It goes without saying how much I will miss coaching them.”
Reach Braden Moles at 937-683-4056 or on Twitter @BradenMoles