A nip and tuck affair between two of the area’s Division III heavies came down to a “shot”, a “foul”, and a nervy pair of made free throws.
Englewood – Miami East coach Allen Mack emerged from his triumphant locker room following Saturday’s 51-49 win over Versailles in the Division III sectional final with a broad smile. Obviously trying to prepare his words, a statement for waiting media, his first, best, offering was simply ….”Wow!”
Which to acknowledge the adage that sometimes the less said amounts to being more, Mack summed up the thriller between the kingpins of the Cross County Conference and the MAC in just one word.
In a game pitting the #2 seed (Miami East) versus to the #3 seed (Versailles), it was a close, as contested, and as predictable as you would expect. Eight lead changes marked the game, with neither team ever leading by more than five points.
“We were #2 and they were #3,” said Mack, when he finally collected his thoughts. “It was a battle right down to the finish. I couldn’t be more proud of my guys.”
It was a game of twists and turns, as closely-played affairs always are.
It was a game of back and forth, one team seizing the momentum and the lead with a shot or a free throw, only to see the other team take it back.
It wasn’t a game of statistics, or percentages. Rather, it was a game of strategy, philosophies…and willpower.
Miami East wanted to control the pace of the game and force Versailles to win by shooting over Mack’s patented zone defense.
Versailles wanted to play up-tempo, with speed, creating turnovers and turning them into points off transition. Versailles assistant Kevin Ahrens later admitted, “We play better when we can play fast.” East never let that happen. East won the battle of tactics.
Mack packed it in, denying the passing lanes to the post, forcing Versailles to shoot from the outside in the first half. The Tigers, confident to oblige, responded by hitting seven three-point attempts.
But the Vikings did well enough with their own outside shooting to hold serve while they adapted the zone. Brandon Mack flipped in a three midway through the second quarter that helped set the stage for a dramatic finish to the half; that helped set the stage for a teammate, and the game’s outcome based on what amounted to three pivotal plays.
#1) The Shot: With the clock winding down on the the first half and East in possession of the ball, senior Braxton Donaldson found himself standing wide open just to the right of the key, in three-point range. Not known for his prowess behind the arc, Donaldson nonetheless let one fly…and drained it. It amounted to the Vikings going to the locker room with a 33-32 lead, but moreover, those three points amounted to the winning margin for the game.
“If anyone was close enough you could hear me yelling for him to step into the shot,” said Mack. “Sometimes he puts up his shot too flat, but when he steps into the shot and gets his legs under him he can make that shot. It was a huge point in the game, a momentum turn for us going into the second half…and course for the outcome at the end of the game.
#2) The Foul: With ten seconds remaining in the fourth quarter and the score tied at 49, Damien Mackesy, sitting on 20 points, drove from the point toward the paint with Versailles guard Justin Ahrens on his hip. Mackesy stopped, pump faked, went airborne with a shot attempt and drew a foul call from referee Dave Wortman. It put him at the line with 3 seconds remaining with two shots to win it. He made both to give East the lead, 51-49.
“In terms of execution Damien was able to do exactly what we asked him to do leaving the timeout,” added Mack. “Get to the lane, give a hard fake, and get to the free throw line. He’s been at the line before in big games, hitting 10 of 10 in the fourth quarter against Tri-Village, but nothing was bigger than what he did tonight.
“Ironically, before we got on the bus to come down here we always shoot in our gym at home. I looked out there and there’s Damien at the foul line for a couple of last shots before he got on the bus. How fitting. He broke a record tonight for most free throws in one season that went back to 1992 when Rick Konicki had 123. He needed one to break that record tonight, and he went 10 for 10.”
#3) The Free Throws: When Mackesy got to the line he confessed afterwards that he’d never been under that kind of stress. And while some say they ignore it, the Vikings’ leading scorer was want to admit that it had, for a moment, an unsettling effect.
“That was the plan the whole time, to get to the free throw line,” said Mackesy after the game. “I was actually dizzy a little bit, shaken, when I went to the line. It’s tough to go up there with a full gym like this and so much riding on it. But I got to the gym early back at home before we left and worked on free throws. I had a feeling there’d be some fouls called, and to come out here and win the game on two fouls shots…is crazy.”
In terms of execution, East’s zone obviously had an effect on Versailles’ offensive execution. And if Allen Mack was exhilarated in talking about his views on the game, Versailles coach Scott McEldowney was absolutely drained as he recounted the issues that made the difference in his team’s performance, and the outcome.
“Their defense made a big difference in terms of our flow,” said McEldowney. “I mean, we’ve gotten a lot better in the halfcourt, but we just couldn’t speed ’em up like we wanted. Our foul trouble had something to do with that, too, but still felt like we made some nice runs.
“The shot at the end of the half was big, it took momentum away and it felt like we had to start over at the beginning of the second half. Their physicality and rebounding with their size hurt us a little bit. And it’s a hard game to play when you have no margin for error and all but about three of our kids had never been in a game of this magnitude. A lot of them have played JV or sat on the bench before, and to be in this spotlight with a chance to move on and play at UD next week was big…but I thought we handled it pretty well.”
It was tense; it was stressful. Dizzying, even, for the hero of the game.
East moves on, of course, while Versailles, a very young team with sophomore and junior talent, goes home to retool, and as Kevin Ahrens said, “Build on this experience for next year.”
Damien Mackesy led all scorers with 22 points. Teammate Logan West added 14.
Justin Ahrens, on the strength of his four three-pointers, led Versailles with 20 points. Teammate Brett McEldowney hit four of is own to finish with 14 points.
In a game so close that an unexpected three-point shot, a foul, and a pair of free throws determined the ultimate outcome, in the words of Scott McEldowney there really was no margin for error.
Ironically, with 2.7 seconds remaining, and Versailles with the possession and just enough time to possibly get off one last shot, Austin Knapke was to throw the inbounds pass to Justin Ahrens. Ahrens, in his haste, looked up court to find the defense and had the pass ricochet off his hands and out of bounds.
That’s how it ended.