By Josh Brown
WEST MILTON — Daniel Albaugh in-bounding the ball off of an unsuspecting opposing player’s back to himself for an easy game-tying layup.
Tommy Smith’s 3 from well beyond the line to give the Bulldogs their first lead.
Zach Vagedes’ go-ahead jumper in overtime.
Eric Swartz’s rebounding and perfect performance from the free throw line to seal it.
All those plays and dozens of other clutch edge-of-your-seat ones from every player on the roster added up to one thing — the Milton-Union student section storming the court after the Bulldogs themselves stormed back from a 20-point first-half deficit to take their first lead late in the fourth quarter, then continuing to fight in overtime to retake the lead and holding on for an exciting 52-47 Senior Night victory over Southwestern Buckeye League Buckeye Division rival Waynesville Thursday at home to close out the regular season.
“It was amazing,” said Swartz, one of the team’s five seniors. “To win it on Senior Night, in front of our home crowd, against Waynesville, there’s nothing better.”
“It was exciting,” added senior Tommy Smith. “We just kept fighting, doing everything we could. It’s a great feeling. I love my team, love my teammates, every one of them.”
“No matter how far behind we got, we just kept battling,” senior Joey Swafford said. “That’s kind of been our motto, our attitude, all season long.”
And the game, put simply, was a reflection of that entire season. The Bulldogs began the year with 11 consecutive losses then, after an overtime win over Madison, dropped eight more straight games before Tuesday’s win at Dixie. And yet through all those losses, the Bulldogs, who finished the season 3-19 and 3-9 in the SWBL Buckeye, never once gave up, nor did their fans give up on them — as evidenced by the electric atmosphere late in Thursday’s game.
“It really was a snapshot of our season,” Milton-Union coach Rusty Berner said. “Those guys just don’t give in. They battle. They never give up, no matter what is going against them. That’s why this community loves them. Not many gyms would be this excited about a three-win team … but look at this place. These kids’ heart, that’s why the community supports them so much.”
Even after the Spartans (7-15, 5-7 SWBL Buckeye) — who defeated Milton-Union 57-34 back on Jan. 15 in the first meeting at Waynesville — hit their first four 3-point attempts, scoring the game’s first 14 points and taking an 18-2 lead after the first quarter, the Bulldogs didn’t quit. In fact, it may have helped.
“Last year when we beat Waynesville here, we got behind 17-0,” Berner said. “So for us, it wasn’t really unfamiliar territory. Heck, when it got to 14-0 tonight, one of the refs gave me a look. I told him ‘it was 17-0 last year. We’re fine.’
“‘We’re fine.’ I said that as a joke at the time, but then I thought about it. And we talked to the kids about it. And then they started talking about it — and believing. We knew if we played good defense and kept grinding, we could battle back.”
And that’s exactly what the Bulldogs did.
After turning the ball over six times and going 0 for 5 from the field in the first quarter, Milton-Union slowly began to turn things around. Griffin Clark was fouled on a 3-point attempt and hit all three free throws to give the Spartans their biggest lead at 24-4, but then Tommy Smith hit a 3 from four feet behind the line to inject some life into the Bulldogs. He canned another 3 in transition and Joey Swafford drove in for a layup to cut the lead to 24-12 midway through the quarter, and after Waynesville rebuilt the lead to 30-12, William Morris hit a jumper and a 3, then Albaugh hit Swartz for a fast-break layup to close the half with seven more straight points and make it an 11-point game at the break, 30-19.
The Bulldogs got back to within single digits for the first time at 33-24 after an Albaugh 3 early in the third, but a 3 by Clark later pushed the lead back to 10. A layup by Swartz and a three-point play by Blake Ullery got the Bulldogs to within five at 38-33 heading into the final quarter of regulation, and eventually a putback by Swartz on a missed free throw closed the gap to two at 38-36 with 3:30 left in the fourth.
And that’s when the Bulldogs’ slowly-building momentum finally hit its tipping point in the most spectacular way possible.
Swafford stole the ball and Waynesville poked it away, but the Bulldogs won the hustle play and dove on it, allowing Berner to call timeout with 3:25 left in the fourth. Albaugh took the ball to run an in-bounds play under the basket — and noticed an opening.
“He just had his back to me, so I went for it,” he said.
Albaugh got it, too, casually tossing the ball off of a Waynesville player’s back and back to himself for an uncontested layup, tying the score at 38-38 and working the already-excited crowd into a frenzy.
“The crowd was going crazy, and we all picked up our intensity,” Albaugh said. “Like coach has been telling us all season, we’ve just got to keep fighting, no matter what.”
Milton-Union got another stop on the other end, and Vagedes dished to Tommy Smith, who hit his third 3 of the game to give the Bulldogs a 41-38 lead with 2:15 to play.
“It was extremely important,” Smith said of finally getting the lead. “We’d fought the whole game. It was exciting.”
“Once the momentum shifts and the kids start believing, they’re not thinking about how we lost by 23 to them last time a few weeks ago. They’re thinking about the next possession,” Berner said. “It was one of those games where we just kept chipping away and chipping away, and a couple big plays like those two and a bunch of others finally got us over the hump.”
The Bulldogs led 43-40 with 1:16 to play before Cook hit his fourth 3 of the game to tie the score and send it to overtime, but Milton-Union was still riding the momentum. Tommy Smith put back his own miss to start overtime, then Noah Price hit a 3 to give the Spartans a 46-45 lead. But Albaugh drove and kicked out to an open Vagedes, who calmly knocked down a jumper to give the lead back to the Bulldogs for good.
“I wasn’t even thinking. Just shooting,” said Vagedes, who also had two key steals in the fourth quarter to help the Bulldogs take the lead. “It felt pretty good. I knew I’d better hit it, but I wasn’t feeling any pressure. I just saw the shot and was glad I took it.”
“Zach, he’s been a kid that does all the dirty work that goes unnoticed,” Berner said. “We’ve been telling him to shoot more, and there he goes and drains a huge shot to put us back up by one in overtime.”
After a series of missed free throws by both teams, Swartz hit a pair to make it a three-point game with 20.8 seconds to go. The Spartans missed a pair of 3s and Swartz grabbed the rebound, but the Bulldogs were called for a technical foul at the same time as Waynesville fouled to stop the clock. Blake Smith hit one to make it a two-possession game, then Logan Fruhwirth hit one of the technical free throws to cut it to 50-47.
The Bulldogs committed a foul away from the ball with 4.6 seconds left and Cook missed the first free throw, and Waynesville called timeout to set up one last desperation try. Cook missed the second on purpose — but Swartz again pulled down the rebound and was fouled, hitting both free throws to ice it.
“I was feeling a little pressure,” Swartz said. “But I knew my teammates and coaches all trust me, and that’s all that matters.”
Swartz finished with 14 points and 11 rebounds and Tommy Smith added 14 points to lead the way. Albaugh had five points, five rebounds and seven assists, Swafford had five points, four rebounds and three assists, Morris had five points, Vagedes had four points and two steals, Ullery had three points and four rebounds and Blake Smith had two points.
Fruhwirth led Waynesville with 19 points and Cook added 16, with both hitting four of the team’s 10 3s. Only two other Spartans scored in the game, though, as Price added eight points and Micah Schenking had four and 12 rebounds.
“You go back through, it all happened so quick,” Berner said. “Albaugh’s play to tie it, Tommy Smith, who hadn’t hit for a while, hitting a big 3 to give us the lead. Joey, his stats may not jump out of a statbook, but talk about leadership. Blake had a big and-one for us … and then you’ve got Eric. What an emotional Senior Night for him, getting a double-double and hitting some big free throws down the stretch.
“We had multiple kids making big plays for us down the stretch. For them, it was one or two kids making all the plays. And after we had 10 turnovers in the first half, we only had three the rest of the game — and we won every hustle play. Every loose ball, we were the first ones to the floor after it.”
“It was a team effort all around,” Swafford said. “That’s what the coaches have been preaching all season, and that’s what we’re all about.”
And while there was a presentation as the team honored seniors Swartz, Swafford, Tommy and Braden Smith and Ethan Dohner before the game, the prize the Bulldogs took home after was far more meaningful.
“We did it for the seniors,” Albaugh said. “They mean a lot to us all, the whole team. We had to do it for them.”
“It feels so good to win this one for the seniors,” Vagedes said. “It was like our whole year. We started out down, but we kept battling and got this one for them.”
“I couldn’t be more happy for the kids,” Berner said. “Especially the seniors. This was a great way to end the season.”
Contact Josh Brown at (937) 552-2132, or follow @TroyDailySports on Twitter.