By Josh Brown
CASSTOWN — Seven games ago, no one would have expected this out of the Miami East Vikings.
Now that they’re here, though, the Vikings will face their greatest challenge yet.
The Vikings (15-10) ran off seven straight victories in the month of February, culminating in last week’s 53-45 victory over inter-county rival Milton-Union in the sectional championship game. But tonight, Miami East will face a completely different kind of test when they take on Roger Bacon in the Division III district final at 5:30 p.m. at UD Arena.
“Us being here didn’t seem very realistic a month ago,” Miami East boys basketball coach Allen Mack said. “But we went 8-1 in the month of February, and running off these last seven victories in a row has definitely been the highlight of the season. Now we’re hoping to carry that into March.”
The Vikings began the month of February with a win, but then they dropped a road game at Troy. Since then, though, Miami East has not lost, a stretch that includes three tournament wins. During four games in this run, Miami East did not allow the opponent to score more than 30 points — including a 29-28 double-overtime victory over Milton-Union in the regular season.
“The defense has really fueled us in this run,” Mack said. “In February, we held teams to an average just a shade over 30 points per game. The biggest improvement in our game has been defensively, and that’s really sparked us.”
But all season long when it has counted, the Vikings have been able to adjust to what they needed to do in the moment. In an early-season win over state-ranked Bethel, the Vikings held the Bees in check with a low-scoring first half, but they were also able to keep pace and stay out in front once Bethel turned the tempo up in the second half.
The same could be said in their tournament run. The Vikings got the No. 13 seed in the sectional and held a dangerous No. 7 Waynesville team in check in a 56-42 opening-round win, then they sped things up to keep pace with No. 4 Northridge and won 71-61 to earn a rematch with the Bulldogs. And once they got out in front, the Vikings didn’t make any mistakes, playing fundamental basketball to claim the sectional title.
“We’re coming off a really good offensive game (against Milton-Union) right now,” Mack said. “We shot 60 percent from the field and 70 percent from the free throw line and only had seven turnovers. We were able to get the lead and maintain it.”
And the key to the tournament portion of the Vikings’ run has been Damien Mackesy and A.J. Hickman.
“We’ve had a really nice one-two punch in the sectional with Damien and A.J.,” Mack said. “Damien’s averaged 20.7 points per game over those three games. He’s shot 69 percent from the field and is 26 for 33 from the free throw lines over that time, and he’s averaged seven rebounds a game. He’s been a huge presence for us.
“A.J. has averaged 17 points per game over that time, is 19 for 21 from the free throw line, has three assists per game and has been a big part of handling the full-court and half-court pressure that we’ve seen. And this is what you hope for at the beginning of the year — for your sophomores and juniors to gain experience throughout the year, and for it to pay off at the right time.”
But now the Vikings face Roger Bacon, which finished the regular season ranked No. 5 in the final Division III state poll. After a regional final loss to Versailles last year — a year it expected to contend for a state title — Roger Bacon has similar aspirations this year.
“I would say they’re definitely the best team we’ve faced since our district final game two years ago against Summit,” Mack said. “And Summit went on to win state that year.”
But the Vikings surprised Summit that year, playing a tough game before a few clutch plays late allowed Summit to advance. This time around, Roger Bacon poses a similar, if not tougher, threat.
“They’re a very high-scoring team and a very high-pressure defensive team,” Mack said. “They average about 73 per game and give up about 54, and nine times they’ve scored more than 80. Obviously, they’re very athletic and shoot the ball well, and they fuel their offense with their defense.
“They’ll press us endline to endline for all 32 minutes, and we’ve got to be ready for that. It’s going to be a tough one for us. Fortunately we’ve seen a stretch of teams recently that play this same kind of defense — just maybe not with the kind of athletes Roger Bacon has. We will have to handle the basketball well.”
The Vikings went into that matchup two seasons ago with a plan, though, and executed it well — and very nearly shocked everyone. And this time, Miami East has a plan again.
“My assistant coaches, Matt Rutledge, Kevin Evans and Tom Meyer, have done a lot of outstanding prep work scouting and organizing to help us come up with a gameplan,” Mack said. “It’s really been a team effort.”
Which is just the Vikings’ way.
It’s worked for the past seven games, too.
“We’re hoping for a little of our own March Madness,” Mack said. “The kids have accepted the challenge, and we’re looking to take it one possession at a time. We’re hoping to play well.”
Contact Josh Brown at (937) 440-5251 or email@example.com, or follow @TroyDailySports on Twitter.