Physical hardly describes it, but the excitement of an overtime win had everyone feeling a little beat up as Ft. Recovery handed Versailles its first league loss.
Ft. Recovery – The last time I was in Ft. Recovery’s gym (fieldhouse) was in the winter of 2003-04. I remember it distinctly because it was Kyle Gehle and Joe Shardo’s senior season for the Versailles Tigers and the game was an unexpected barn-burner.
I remember Versailles winning that game on a cold rainy night, but not before a Recovery player that I cannot remember by name now went on a wild scoring binge that almost toppled the heavily-favored Tigers.
Fast forward now about 13 years, and as Yogi Berra used to say, “It was like deja-vu all over again” Friday. Favored Versailles (11-3) came to visit on another cold rainy night…and this time the host Indians (8-2) left nothing to chance. They literally fought like the “Fort” was being attacked, overcame a halftime deficit, forced overtime, and eventually won, 54-51, handing Versailles its first league loss.
Ft. Recovery, who started its season late as a result of the football playoffs, has yet to lose in the MAC!
It was crazy, pure and simple.
It was rough, even more pure and even more simple…at times resembling a brawl in the lane and under the rim. Physical play is the calling card of MAC basketball and rarely do you ever hear anyone complain. But afterwards Friday, the respective coaches wondered if maybe, for once, the outcome wasn’t more a matter of the last man standing, than basketball skill. They weren’t alone!
And, it was ironic for the fact of the league’s leading scorer, Versailles sophomore Justin Ahrens, barely scored at all. He finished the night with as many fouls and he had points…4. If you’re one that likes it when a plan comes together, Ft. Recovery coach Chris Guggenbiller’s came right out of the book of Naismith.
“He (Ahrens) is a great shooter and other teams have been playing him man and face-guarding him all year,” Guggenbiller had determined before the game. “We were going to play zone and match up our two quick guards on him all night.”
Brandon Schoen and Darien Sheffer hustled, harassed, and highjacked Ahrens into the most frustrating shooting night of his career. He finished just 1 of 6 from the field (a three pointer in the first half), and 1 of 4 from the free throw line…four points for the night.
“We knew he was a great player. We knew he was their key player,” said Sheffer, who finished with 10 points of his own. “We were confident that if we could hold him down we’d have a pretty good chance to win. We preached all week…know where he (Ahrens) is at all times. Everybody talked on defense all night, even as loud as the gym was. We communicated well, our rotations were good, we kept a hand in his face, and we held him down. Basically, it amounted to two victories for us.”
Competitive hardly describes the ebb and flow of the game.
Trailing 17-14 at the end of the first quarter, Ft. Recovery held their own in the second to trail by just three at the half, 28-25.
The basket seemed to shrink for both teams, as a result of defense, no doubt…or just plain, hard physical play. Versailles shot 39% for the half, while Recovery barely shot 30%.
That trend carried over into the second half. Suddenly, Versailles became more tentative on offense without the shot-making benefit of Ahrens. Teammates Keaton McEldowney and A.J. Ahrens did their best to fill (both finished the game with 12 points), but there were no points in transition, and even trips to the free throw line proved empty. The Tigers, for the game, hit just 7 of 18 attempts from the line.
“I thought we had good ball movement in the first half,” said Versailles coach Scott McEldowney. “But as the game tightened up we seemed to get complacent. We quit moving the basketball and had kids, instead, play with the attitude of…I’ll make the big shot for us. I’m going to make a drive for us. I’m going to score inside for us. And when you do that you’re really not making the defense work.
“We’ve been so quick to score this year with all our good offensive players that we haven’t learned to be patient. They did a good job of defending us, not just Justin, but the rest of our shooters, too. And if you’re not moving the ball well that plays into what they were doing.”
And, to the point of the physical play?
“I thought the physicality of the game hurt us a little bit,” admitted McEldowney. “They (the officials) let ‘em play and the kids have to learn to deal with that when the game’s played that way. When it’s a tight game we’d rather have it be about skill than physicality. Tonight I thought it was more about physicality than it was skill.”
Ft. Recovery somehow found a way to score two more points than Versailles in the third, 11-9.
And they continued to chip away until the 4:07 mark of the fourth when Micaiah Cox hit a shot off the baseline to finally give the Indians their first lead of the game, 40-39. The lead would change hands twice more over the final four minutes…and came down to the final six seconds in regulation with Versailles leading 46-44.
But Darien Sheffer, the sparkplug who played so much a part of winning a title in football, took it upon himself to drive to the lane and draw a foul…two shots to tie and send the game into overtime. He coolly made both, leaving Versailles with a couple of seconds and the ball in Justin Ahrens’ hands for a half-court prayer at the buzzer.
The shot bounced off the iron, and the noose began to tighten. The score was tied, 46-46.
The crowd, both sides, was going crazy.
Buoyed by the comeback, the Recovery partisans were sure their momentum would carry over into the extra period.
The Versailles side, perhaps not so much, wondering if and when Justin Ahrens would somehow knock down a shot, right himself, and restore order to what had become an offensive attack of frustration.
That wasn’t to be.
Recovery came out confident, even while losing starters Chase Bruns and Sheffer. Both fouled out. But the Indians scored twice on key offensive rebounds by Cox and Wes Wenning, and finished the game off at the free throw line. They outscored Versailles 8-5 in the extra four minutes.
“We knew the overtime period was going to be hard,” said Wenning, afterwards. “Working the offensive boards like that is just a physical thing. You can’t teach that, you just bring your own guts and do it.”
“We didn’t have anyone who scored a lot tonight,” added junior Caleb Martin. “But we had a lot of guys who contributed something, offensively or defensively. We had guys who made a shot here, and a shot there. Our bench was big for us, and I think we got more from ours than they did from theirs.”
Micaiah Cox led all scorers with 18 quiet points…nothing flashy, just his contribution.
Martin added 11…Sheffer had 10…Matt Bihn had 7….Schoen and Bruns both had 3. And Wenning, his stickback off the offensive boards netted him two precious points in OT.
Keaton McEldowney and Brett McEldowney each scored 12 for Versailles, which finished the game having shot 35% overall, and just 22% from three-point range. Alex Wendel had 6 points…Austin Knapke had 5…Jared Niekamp finished with 2.
“This was MAC basketball,” Chris Guggenbiller said, stone-faced. “It was tough, hard, physical basketball and those kind of games come down to maximizing your possessions. It comes down to confidence in each other and confidence as a team. You cannot emphasize enough what this past year has done for our athletes here…what Coach Kaup did in baseball last spring, and what Coach Niekamp and the football team accomplished last month, winning that state title. Our kids, boys and girls, are playing right now with an all-time high in confidence.
“We didn’t panic tonight. We didn’t lose our mental focus. When things got tough we kept grinding through and trying to win the next play. We had one lead in regulation, but no one got discouraged. It speaks to the character of the kids in our locker room right now.”
And, it certainly speaks to my history of games seen in the field house at Ft. Recovery. Driving home on route 705 the thought occurred to me that Friday night’s game was nearly identical to the last one I saw 13 years ago with Kyle Gehle and Joe Shardo…except with a different winner.
The way they’re playing now I could come back in 13 years and probably see another just like it. Apparently, it’s always a fight at the Fort!