By Josh Brown
Troy Daily News
PIQUA — Troy Christian boys basketball coach Ray Zawadzki didn’t — couldn’t — leave his players completely alone over the Christmas break.
They can thank Bethel’s Kendal James for that.
“On Christmas, I’m sending the kids texts about James,” Zawadzki said. “Bethel has the ability to score fast. You’re talking about a special talent in James. We luckily had 12 days off to prepare, and we were very focused on that and were determined to limit his looks.”
And even though James still scored a game-high 19 points — including a seven-point fourth-quarter burst to tie the score with 38 seconds remaining — the Eagles did just enough during a 16-5 third-quarter run to build a big enough lead, Connor Case sank a pair of free throws with 5.6 seconds on the clock and Bethel missed a desperation 3-point try at the buzzer, giving Troy Christian a 37-35 victory over the Bees in the first game of the WPTW Classic tournament Thursday at Piqua High School.
Troy Christian, the defending tournament champion, improved to 5-2 on the season and won its third straight in the process. But the Eagles also knew that it wouldn’t be easy against the Bees. Last year, Troy Christian defeated Bethel 66-60 in overtime and is now 3-3 against the Bees since the 2013-14 season.
“It’s a great rivalry we’ve got going, and I’ve got respect for (Bethel) coach (Brett) Kopp and the program they have,” Zawadzki said. “Their tradition is unbelievable, and it’s something we’re trying to establish at Troy Christian. That’s a very good basketball team over there.
“We knew we were going to be in for a fun, competitive game where it would come down to one or two possessions. And our kids, they’re learning. I can’t say they’re young anymore because they’re growing up each time out on the floor. We made some mistakes, but we’ll learn from it and continue to get better.”
For Bethel, which fell to 5-4 with the loss, it was simply a case of waiting to long to feel the sense of urgency.
“We’ve got to play with that energy the whole game,” Kopp said, referring to the game’s final two minutes. “We can use excuses — it’s a Thursday night, the first day back from a holiday, blah, blah, blah — but we’ve got to play the whole game with that kind of energy. Especially when our shots aren’t falling.
“We gave a pretty good effort, not consistently throughout the game. But our energy can never come down. But we battled back and even had a chance to win.”
And both coaches knew exactly where Thursday’s game turned around.
With Bethel holding a 16-13 lead coming out of halftime, Izaak Frantom intercepted a pass on the Bees’ first possession of the third quarter, leading to a pair of Connor Peters free throws. Another turnover led to a Brady Clawson bucket inside to give the Eagles their first lead since the first quarter at 17-16, and another Troy Christian steal turned into a 3 by Peters to make it a four-point game — and the Eagles would not trail again.
“It started on that first possession, and give Izaak Frantom credit,” Zawadzki said. “We talked about it at halftime — I said, guys, we were 4 for 25 from the field in the half and only down three. It’s going to get better.’ And that first possession, Izaak gets in the passing lane, gets a steal and we come away with two points. And the kids started feeling good about themselves.”
“We had a turnover on the very first possession (of the third),” Kopp said. “We had something drawn up to get Kendal a quick look, and it didn’t work. We had a turnover, and I think that sparked them a little bit — and we put our heads down a little bit more.”
Dylan Williams finally scored inside for Bethel to end Troy Christian’s methodical 10-0 march with 4:20 left in the third quarter, but a drive by Chace Varvel and a 3 by Isaac Gray gave the Eagles their biggest lead of the night at 29-20, and the Bees trailed 29-21 heading into the fourth quarter.
The margin stayed roughly the same until a fast-break layup by Gray made the score 35-28 with two minutes to play. But James hit a pair of free throws, then a Nick Schmidt steal led to a 3 by James to make it a two-point game and force a Troy Christian timeout with 1:42 remaining. The Eagles missed the front end of a one-and-one two times, though, and James hit a short putback jumper to even things up at 35-35 with 38 seconds on the clock.
“We can’t be down seven to be able to find that energy,” Kopp said. “That’s the kind of effort we need all the time.”
“We did miss two front ends during that last run, and those are something we’ve just got to have,” Zawadzki said. “I trust my kids at the free throw line. Those two misses were just an anomaly.”
That trust proved to be well placed, too, as Case drew a foul on a drive to the basket with 5.2 seconds on the clock, and he hit both free throws to put the Eagles back up by two, and a missed 3 at the buzzer moved the Eagles into the tournament’s championship game for the second straight year.
Gray had 10 points and seven rebounds and Clawson had 10 points and eight rebounds to lead Troy Christian, which won the turnover battle 13-9 despite committing five of its in the final quarter. Case added eight points, Peters had five and Varvel finished with four.
James had 19 points, four rebounds and three assists to lead Bethel, while Evans finished with four points and 13 rebounds as the Bees won the battle of the boards 36-34. Dylan Williams added four points and five rebounds, Schmidt and Micah Mutlu each had three points and Seann Russell had two points.
“They’re a very good defensive team, very physical,” Kopp said. “Ray (Zawadzki) has been known as a defensive guy, and he’s a really good basketball coach. I thought we defended pretty well ourselves, missed some key buckets, and Jared Evans was a monster on the boards.”
Both teams await the result of Thursday’s late game between Lehman and host Piqua, which had not ended at time of press as the game was delayed for an hour due to a power outage with the Indians leading 15-6 with 2:01 left in the first quarter.
Josh Brown is the Sports Editor of the Troy Daily News. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @TroyDailySports on Twitter.