By Luke Severt
For the Troy Daily News
BRANDT — When two teams who have already been crowned champion of their respective divisions compete, the matchup is bound to come down to the wire.
On Saturday at Bethel High School, Metro Buckeye Conference winner Troy Christian and Cross County Conference champion Bethel decided they needed more than the 32 minutes of regulation to decide who would come out on top. In the end, the Eagles prevailed, defeating the Bees 66-60 in overtime in a potential sectional final preview.
The win put the Eagles (20-2) over the 20-win threshold, only the fourth team in school history to achieve the feat.
“That 20 mark is pretty special. In Troy Christian’s history, this is the fourth team that’s accomplished that feat. That was one of our kids’ goals at the beginning of the season, so I’m happy for them,” Troy Christian head coach Ray Zawadzki said. “But like I told them, we’re not done. We’ve got a lot more to accomplish, and this group is very determined and very focused.”
The path the contest travelled to end up in overtime is not one that is typically followed. Instead of a neck-and-neck, evenly matched battle in regulation, both teams went through elongated periods of domination, and in the end it just so happened that the scores were equal.
In the first quarter, it seemed as if the matchup would end up a blowout. Troy Christian gained possession of the opening tip-off and proceeded to open the game on a 9-0 run, highlighted by the first four of senior James Anderson’s 20 points on the night. Bethel took more than three minutes to get on the board, when junior guard Kendall James kick-started his huge performance for the Bees. He’d hit two free throws a few minutes later, but his points were the only ones his team would score in the first quarter, as Troy Christian built an early lead, the quarter ending 16-4.
After the Eagles opened the first quarter with a 9-0 run, Bethel did the same in the second. Five different Bees scored during the run, which lasted until the four-minute mark, and Bethel had fought back to within three. After an Anderson 2, a James 3 and a Troy Christian free throw, the Bees executed one of their biggest plays of the night. With two minutes left in the half, Bethel sophomore Nick Schmidt shot a contested 3, and was fouled on the way down. Schmidt celebrated on the floor after seeing his shot go in and hearing the whistle immediately after. He converted his free throw, and the four-point play completed Bethel’s comeback, as they had their first lead of the night, 20-19.
Bethel’s ability to finish the play and draw the foul hurt Troy Christian again just minutes later, when Ryan Rose capitalized on an and-one, making his free throw after being knocked down while making a layup. With help from the passionate home crowd, the Bees owned all of the momentum and rode it into the half, leading the Eagles 25-23.
After the half, Troy Christian appeared to be a completely different team, with images of their first-quarter prowess shining through the surface. They did not go on any overpowering runs, but six more points from Anderson helped lead a 10-point swing, as they went from being down three to enjoying a seven-point lead heading into the fourth quarter.
A seven-point deficit to a strong defensive team is not an easy mountain to climb, but the Bees would not quit on Saturday. With six minutes remaining, Anderson was sent to the line on a Bethel shooting foul. He sank the first one, but missed the second. However, the Bees were called for a lane violation, giving Anderson an opportunity to redeem himself, and he did so. In hindsight, the violation may have cost them a chance to win the game.
With two minutes to play and the deficit cut to three, James appeared to twist his ankle attacking the rim for a rebound, and he was forced to hop to the Bethel locker room for treatment. He would re-enter the game with 45 seconds left to play, and made an impact in the final seconds.
“Kendall James has been our X-Factor all season long. He’s a 5-foot-8 kid who can dunk a basketball, he’s probably one of the better rebounders in our league and when he’s shooting well he’s tough to guard. He can really play basketball, and he has done some really good things for us this year,” Bethel head coach Brett Kopp said.
In the concluding 30 seconds, as with most games, the contest came down to free throws. First, Troy Christian’s Ben Schenk hit a pair to extend the Eagle lead to three. James answered with two of his own before Schenk went to the line and again converted both of his shots, and his team’s lead was back to three, setting the scene for a game-tying shot.
Trailing by three with just under two seconds left to play in regulation, Bethel knew they had to take a shot from behind the arc, and they would not be able to rely on their star player, Caleb South, who was out with an injured foot. With Troy Christian putting heavy pressure on Bethel’s ball-handler, James, his teammate Korry Hamlin was able to slip through a crack in the Eagles’ defense. James was able to evade the defenders and get the ball to Hamlin, who did not hesitate to attempt — and convert — the biggest shot of his life. The home crowd erupted as the ball travelled flawlessly through the net, sending the contest to overtime and keeping Bethel’s hopes alive.
As with regulation, overtime saw one team control the scoring for an extended period of time. With only a four-minute period to decide the winner, it’s difficult for a team to mount a comeback once they fall behind in overtime. The Eagles scored the first five points, including an and-one by Cameron Strine. With 90 seconds left, the Bees were still within three but were forced to foul. They sent Schenk to the line twice in a row, and he converted one free throw both times, extending Troy Christian’s lead to five with 45 seconds left to play.
At the thirty-second mark, Kopp was given a technical foul for a dispute with the referees. There was a foul on the court, as well, and the Eagles were given four shots from the free throw line. They converted three of them, extending their lead to eight and putting it out of reach for the Bees. James scored a basket as time expired, but it was not enough as Troy Christian was victorious.
“We talk about next-play mentality a lot,” Zawadzki said. “They hit a 3 to tie it, so we said ‘Hey, let’s get the jump ball and go back after it in overtime.’ We believe in what we’re doing, offensively and defensively, and those were a fun four minutes. It was a great night for high school basketball.”
To compliment Anderson’s 20 points, Troy Christian received scoring contributions from Schenk, who finished with 17, and Cameron Strine, who put up 11 points — all in the second half. Jackson Kremer added seven, Izaak Frantom scored six, Connor Case had three and Colt Tanner added two.
The Eagles, a No. 5 seed in the upcoming sectional tournament, will face 17th-seeded Indian Lake at 6 p.m. Feb. 24 at Northmont High School.
“We always, as a coaching staff, want to be on a winning streak going into the tournament. We’re at 16 straight right now, but I don’t think our kids are really worried about that. They believe in themselves and in each other, and most importantly, what we’re trying to get across to them,” Zawadzki said. “They’ve bought into it, and as long as we execute, we’ll be a hard out for anybody.”
James led all scorers with 25 points and also added nine rebounds for Bethel. Rose complemented James with 12 points of his own, Jacob Evans had nine, Hamlin finished with five, Van Haaren and Nick Schmidt had four a piece and Ben Lawson had one.
“The kids played hard. Our kids are always going to play hard. We missed some shots we probably shouldn’t have, but you know, it is what it is. The kids played hard and that’s all I can ask for. That’s the only expectation they have from me, is to play as hard as they can,” Kopp said.
The Bees, who recently won the CCC for the second year in a row, finish their regular season at 17-5. They have a first-round bye in the tournament and will play the winner between conference rival Miami East, a team they defeated earlier this season, and Greenon.
“I have a lot of faith in these kids. I always feel confident in them, just because of their abilities, and how bad they want to win for each other and for their school,” Kopp said. “We’ve played earlier this year without Caleb South, and I think he’ll be back, but if he’s not ready to go, we really have to get ready for that one. We have to take it one day at a time, in terms of preparation. We have to get better defensively, we have to get better shooting the ball, we have to get better finishing at the rim. I’m looking forward to Tuesday and getting back to practice with them.”
Should Bethel and Troy Christian avoid defeat early on in the tournament, they would be headed for a rematch in the sectional title game on March 3.
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