Covington led for stretches, and threatened to snap the Bees’ perfect league mark. But Bethel turned in a familiar direction – Caleb South – to revive at the end and beat the Buccaneers on the road.
COVINGTON – As the Bethel Bees make their final regular-season stops during the boys basketball campaign, junior Caleb South continues to lobby potential voters for the position he covets – Cross County Conference player of the year.
South was up to his usual politicking with a game-high 27 points against Covington, but he wasn’t the only one stumping on Friday. The Buccaneers nearly tripped up CCC-leading Bethel in a rocking gym that at times was worthy of a post-season atmosphere. Bethel saw an 11-point lead wither down to two points in the fourth quarter before pulling out a 60-53 victory at the free-throw line. Bethel’s South led the way with six of his team’s nine fourth-quarter points. He hit four free throws in the final minute and finished 14-of-14 from the line overall.
“I told them in the locker room if this would have happened 12 games ago, we may have lost,” Bethel coach Nathan Kopp said of the Bees, who have won three straight and 11 of their last 12. “They’ve grown up and matured. They’ve overcome some adversity and they won the game. We’re one win away from at least a share of the league title. That was our number one goal and that’s why I’m so happy because they fought through some adversity to get to it.”
Covington (8-7 overall, 5-3 CCC) led for stretches in the first quarter and spent the second down by five points or less the majority of the quarter. Bethel (14-2, 10-0 CCC) took control in the third and grabbed its largest lead with a 51-39 advantage with 1:34 left in that quarter.
What looked like a runaway win ran into trouble when Covington rallied with an 11-0 run. It started with 6:42 left in the game and ended with 2:51 to play when Zach Parrett’s traditional three-point play pulled Covington to 55-53.
But from there it went South.
South ran a little more than 45 seconds off the clock dribbling the ball near midcourt as Covington’s defense backed off. With 1:01 left South hit a pair of free throws for the 57-53 advantage. Six seconds later, South tied up a Covington ball handler near midcourt for a jump ball, giving Bethel possession. After a Tyler Terry free throw with 46 seconds left, South added two more with 25 seconds to play for the final score.
“My freshman year when we came here we really, really struggled,” South said. “We won but we barely won just like tonight. I wasn’t really a factor in that game. My preparation for this game was I’m going to be a difference maker no matter what. Whether it’s getting my teammates involved or getting a rebound. Whether it’s getting a jump ball on defense, anything I can do to help my team win.”
The win moved Bethel one win away from at the least a share of the CCC title. Bethel can clinch a share against visiting Tri-Village on Feb. 10. If Bethel wins against Tri-Village, then the Bees have a chance to clinch the league title outright at Newton on Feb. 17.
“We’re going to see what we’re all about,” South said. “I love playing great teams. It brings out the best in you and shows you what you need to work on. We’ll see where we need to go from there. … This is like the fourth quarter. This is when you find out what you’re made of.”
A tough non-conference stretch also awaits with Carroll on Tuesday, Troy Christian next Friday, Stivers on Feb. 4 and Northmont on Feb. 7.
“We do have a back -loaded schedule, but we do that for a reason,” Kopp said. “If we can win the league and get us prepared for tournament playing some of those up-tempo teams, even better. Our kids are excited for the challenge.”
Bethel has shared the league title in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2006 and 2010. Kopp said as far as he can tell the Bees haven’t won a boys basketball title outright since the 1980s, if ever.
“It think these kids thrive on it,” Kopp said, referring to the pressure and challenge awaiting them. “I have kids that want the ball in crunch time. These kids are easy to coach. You either run or you fight. All these kids are going to fight when it comes down to (crunch time).”
On Friday, Ryan Rose joined South in double figures with 10 points. Jesse Nickell added eight as eight different players scored.
Covington’s Jett Murphy scored a team-high 11 points, all in the second half. Parrett finished with 10 points. Trevor Miller and Kenny Atkinson both finished with eight and Jayce Pond and Tristan Sowers both had seven points.
“For us to battle as long as we did with foul trouble, I couldn’t be more proud of our kids. We had a lot of different lineups in there and every kid we put in competed,” Pond said. “It’s encouraging for us as a staff. We got drilled by a very good Fairlawn team (81-52 on Jan. 20). To turn around and play a good basketball team, our kids gave us a chance in the end. It didn’t go our way but that’s nothing against our kids.”
Covington has lost two straight following a two-game winning streak. Covington is at Ansonia on Friday and hosts Coldwater on Saturday.
“We had our chances tonight, the ball just didn’t bounce our way,” Pond said. “We’ve got a tough schedule and that’s the great thing about our kids. We know they’re going to show up every time.”
Bethel received a team-effort in the first quarter to take the lead for good. Covington led 11-10 with 3:19 left in the first on Nathan Blei’s basket. But the Bees countered with a 10-2 run. Terry scored and South followed off a steal. Rose hit a three-pointer and Kendal James capped the run with a 3-pointer with 40 seconds left.
“I have great teammates,” South said. “We have shooters outside and that’s something we didn’t have the last couple years. When they’re playing great it helps me play better. … I’m proud of our team because we’re battle tested in games we would have given up on last year. We’re winning those games this year.”
South averages about 26 points per game and went for a season-high 40 against Franklin-Monroe in December. He hopes those numbers – as well as his effort Friday – helps his player of the year cause.
“Tonight, on both ends of the floor, I think he made a pretty good statement,” Kopp said. “When he buys in on both ends we’re going to be pretty good.”
Added Pond: “It’s a good conference. He’s one of the top players, but it’s a good basketball conference. He’s one of the top players. There’s a number of good players and I would certainly put him as one of them.
“He gives you some fits in man (defense). He’s very quick and good with the ball. We did a good job but the problem was he’s 14-of-14 from the line. He does that a lot. It’s a tribute to him to be able to get to the line and to his teammates to get him the ball.”