By Josh Brown
Troy Daily News
VANDALIA — After Troy Christian’s Isaac Gray hit yet another 3-pointer, he simply shrugged his shoulders.
He didn’t know what was going on. Didn’t care, really.
Gray connected on five straight 3-point attempts during Saturday’s Division III sectional tournament first-round matchup against 14th-seeded Miami East, giving the ninth-seeded Eagles enough breathing room in the third quarter to put the game away with a punishing second-half defensive effort to seal a 46-35 victory at Butler High School — Troy Christian’s first postseason win as a member of D-III.
The first of Gray’s 3s came at the end of the first quarter, waking the Eagles back up after Miami East had built a five-point lead and making it a two-point game at 14-12 after one. Gray then hit two more in the second quarter, including one as the clock was winding down again to put Troy Christian on top 24-21 at the break, and he finished things off by connecting on back-to-back possessions to give the Eagles a 36-29 lead late in the third, at which point he could only shrug as his teammates on the bench cheered.
“I was just pumped,” said the junior, who finished with a game-high 15 points. “That was five in a row, I was 5 for 5, and I just looked at the bench and they were really excited. I was feeding off their energy.”
And that’s been the case for Troy Christian (16-7) all season long, as eight different Eagle players have led the team in scoring in a game.
“It’s really awesome, but it’s even better knowing that the next teammate is going to do it again — and we don’t know who it’s going to be,” Gray said. “I hit five 3s this game, next game someone can hit six or have 40 points. That’s the way we are. We’re all very talented and feed off of each other.”
“The neat thing is that all five of those 3s came out of five different offenses,” Zawadzki said. “We put in a new zone offense because we knew we had to against (Miami East coach) Allen (Mack), and we had four old ones — and Isaac was able to hit shots out of all of them.
“He’s our streaky shooter. Once one goes in the hoop, he’s very confident.”
The Eagles will now face No. 8 Waynesville, which had a first-round bye, in the tournament’s second round Wednesday at Butler. Last year was Troy Christian’s first year in D-III after playing in D-IV up until then, and the Eagles were upset in the first round.
“It’s history, and we’re happy about that,” Zawadzki said. “It’s something that the kids put down as an early-season goal, wanting to get that first tournament win in school history in D-III. And when you set your mind to something and are passionate about it, usually good things will happen.”
“Give Troy Christian credit. They did a great job not getting frustrated with the tempo early, and they stayed consistent throughout,” Mack said. “We had a really rough third quarter but still stayed within striking distance, but they took over in that fourth.”
Miami East started the game strong, with a Josh Whitt 3-pointer capping off a 6-0 run to make the score 14-9 before Gray hit a 3 to make it a two-point game after one. And four times in the second quarter after Troy Christian took the lead, the Vikings answered to tie the score until Gray hit a 3 late to make it 24-21 at the break.
“The first time we played them (a 46-30 loss on Jan. 15), we were down 11 at the half and really felt like we were never in it,” Mack said. “Today, it felt like a battle, especially in the first half. We wanted to spread it out a little bit, ran something we hadn’t run all year to try to get their bigs away from the basket a little bit, and we got a couple of nice penetration plays by Sam Zapadka with Keegan (Mahaney) and Will Hudson on the finishing end of a couple plays and Sam getting a layup, too.”
“We had to be patient tonight,” Zawadzki said. “Coach Mack came up with a different offense than he’s shown all year, and we had to adjust on the fly, and I thought our kids did a good job of that. We struggled early, though. They scored however they wanted to — and very close to the basket, which was disconcerting for us.”
After a Will Hudson 3 tied the score at 24-24 to begin the third, though, Troy Christian’t defense took over, allowing the Eagles to build a six-point lead halfway through — the biggest for either team to that point — before Hudson hit a 3 to keep East alive. Gray’s final two 3s made the score 36-29, though, and the Eagles carried a 38-31 lead into the final quarter.
And in the fourth, the Vikings struggled even more, turning the ball over 10 times in the final eight minutes alone and only scoring one point until the final minute as the Eagles built a lead as big as 12 points.
“It was just difficult to score against their defense late — which has been a problem for a lot of teams this year,” Mack said. “I think they’re only giving up 39 or 40 points per game, and the defended us really well there in the second half and didn’t allow us to close the gap.
“The turnovers, we tried to do a little too much. And Troy Christian isn’t the type of team you can score a lot against quickly.”
“That’s been our staple all year,” Zawadzki said. “When they had to break away from that stall offense, we were well prepared. And our kids were still fresh. Defensively, our effort was strong. And we took a lot of those turnovers and converted them into easy points, and once the lead got to eight or nine, we were able to go into our stall offense and only take layups if they were available.”
After Gray’s 15 points, Izaak Frantom had eight points and four rebounds — the team high on the boards as the Eagles outrebounded the Vikings 18-17 — Brady Clawson scored seven points, Connor Case had five, Jackson Kremer scored four, Connor Peters added three and Chace Varvel and Aaron Gillespie each had two.
Hudson led the Vikings with 12 points and Mahaney added 11 points and five rebounds, but after that the going was tough. Zapadka scored five, Whitt had three, Brendon Bertsch scored two and Aaron Lawrence and Dylan Thompson each scored one as the Vikings committed a season-high 21 turnovers while forcing only 14.
And though Miami East finished the season 9-14, Mack was pleased with his team’s effort and ability to try something new on short notice.
“I’m really proud of our guys, going out with a great effort,” Mack said. “You never want to get beat and never want to see your season end, but I was proud of our guys. And I want to thank my assistants — Dan Hickman, Kevin Evans, Blake Heim and Matt Rutledge — for helping build something we hadn’t really done all year with the spread offense. We had more points in the first quarter than we did in the first half against them the first time. It’s been a thrill to be a part of this season.”
Josh Brown is the Sports Editor of the Troy Daily News. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @TroyDailySports on Twitter.