By Josh Brown
CLAYTON — Bethel’s Caleb South loves a challenge.
Saturday, he and the Bees faced their biggest one yet.
But every time fourth-seeded West Liberty-Salem hit a clutch shot, South had an answer, scoring 22 of his game-high 33 points in the second half — and 11 in the decisive fourth quarter — as fifth-seeded Bethel proved itself up to the challenge in a 61-57 victory in the Division III sectional championship game Saturday at Northmont High School.
“Coach (Brett) Kopp always challenges us in practice to be the best players we can be,” the sophomore point guard said. “We took this latest one personally. We knew they (West Liberty-Salem) are a great team — we don’t need any extra motivation. That’s all we need.”
South hit three of his four 3-pointers in the second half — all three after the Tigers either took the lead or tied the game. After West Liberty-Salem fought back from a seven-point deficit to tie the score at 40-40 late in the third, South drilled a 3 from behind a screen to give the lead back to the Bees.
The Tigers tied the score again at 45-45 after three quarters and took only their second lead of the game at 47-45 to open the fourth — only to have South nonchalantly pull up and nail a 3 to give it right back to the Bees. And after West Liberty’s Kannon Stillings hit a game-tying 3 to make it 51-51 with four minutes to play, South again answered with a 3 to give Bethel the lead, this time for good.
“That’s who he wants to be,” said Kopp, who guided the Bees to a sectional title in his first season as head coach. “He’s still young and has some stuff to work on, but he wants to be ‘that’ guy. I challenged him a bit. He’s not afraid to take that shot in a big moment. Make it or not, you’ve got to be willing to take that shot.”
The Bees (17-7) began the game on a 10-2 run, but the Tigers closed to within one at 15-14 after the first quarter. Austin Miller gave West Liberty a 16-15 lead to start the second quarter, but Ian Anderson gave it back to the Bees. The Tigers tied it twice more in the second, but Bethel — kick-started by a jumper and a 3 by South — went on a 9-0 run to take a 28-19 lead.
And while West Liberty cut it to five at the half at 31-26, it never felt like the Bees truly lost control.
“To you …,” Kopp said with a nervous chuckle. “We have had lapses all year long, spots where we don’t just go for the jugular when we can. We get a little complacent.
“We’re all still learning — including me. But when we get the chance to extend our lead, to put the other team away, we have to take advantage of it.”
It wasn’t that Bethel was actively trying to have mercy, though — the Tigers (21-4) simply began to hit big shots and fight back.
After five unanswered points by South gave Bethel a 45-40 lead late in the third, Dillon Callicoat scored to keep the Tigers alive, then Miller converted a three-point play to tie the score going into the fourth — and then scored again to give the Tigers the lead briefly.
Bethel led by five at 56-51 with three minutes to play, but a pair of Ross Kelley free throws kept it a one-possession game. Anderson scored to push the lead to five again, but Miller answered to make it 58-55.
And that’s when the Bees — who were 7 for 7 from the free throw line going into the fourth — began missing them, yet still found a way to turn that to their favor.
Anderson hit one free throw with 30 seconds to play but missed the second — but West Liberty couldn’t hang onto the rebound and let it go out of bounds, giving the ball back to Bethel. The Bees missed the front end of a one-and-one — but Jacob Evans got the offensive rebound and was fouled immediately. He hit the first to give the Bees a five-point lead then missed the second, and Tyler Terry grabbed yet another offensive rebound, leaving only 14.2 seconds on the clock.
All told, Bethel was 16 for 24 from the free throw line — 9 for 17 in the fourth.
“It wasn’t the way we wanted it to go,” Kopp said. “We crushed it from the line against Stivers, went 22 for 27 in that game and won by five. We missed them tonight in big moments.”
South, who was 9 for 11 from the line himself, wasn’t concerned as the misses began to mount.
“Coach has really been emphasizing free throw shooting lately,” South said. “I have confidence in all of my teammates. We’re battle tested. We’ve played a lot of great teams this year.”
Stillings hit a pair of free throws to make it a one-possession game at 60-57 with 14.2 seconds left, but the Bees were able to control the ball and pass it around before being fouled, running off most of the clock before South was finally fouled with three seconds left. He sank one to make it a two-possession game, and the Bees closed out the win.
South added six rebounds and five assists to his 33-point night, while Anderson had 15 points and four rebounds. Terry had five points and five rebounds, senior Evan Hawthorn had four points, five rebounds and three blocked shots and Evans added four points.
Miller had 23 points and four rebounds to lead a quartet of Tigers in double figures. Stillings finished with 11 points and four rebounds, Kelley had 10 points and four rebounds and Callicoat scored all 10 of his points in the second half.
“We missed a few scouting things that allowed them to get back into the game,” Kopp said. “But overall, I thought we did a good job on them defensively. Miller may have gotten 23 points, but I thought Evan (Hawthorn) played him great. He’s an all-District 9 player, so for us to hold him to 23, he did a great job. And Stillings, I think he was their conference player of the year, and Tyler played great defense on him.
“This was a team win. When the guys follow through with this kind of focus, we’re a darn good basketball team.”
And now the Bees will get to play on an even bigger stage, taking on Purcell Marian — which was the No. 3 team in the state in the final D-III poll — in the district final Wednesday at UD Arena.
“We achieved our goal, and that’s good for the kids,” Kopp said. “Evan played in the sectional final against Tri-Village two years ago as a sophomore, and now he gets to play at UD Arena. This will be a good experience for the kids.”
“District final, UD Arena — we’re ready for our moment,” South said.
After all, the Bees love a challenge.
Contact Josh Brown at (937) 552-2132, or follow @TroyDailySports on Twitter.