Russia had a golden opportunity to upset the state’s fourth-ranked team on its home floor, but second-half failures at the free throw line by the Raiders allowed Versailles to stretch its winning streak to 11 games.
Versailles – Spencer Cordonnier knew it was going to happen sooner or later.
“We struggle sometimes at the foul line,” said the coach of the Russia Raiders after a December win. “We have got to get that fixed or it is going to cost us down the road.”
‘Down the road’ came Saturday night for the Raiders, and it was literally down the road!
Playing at backyard rival and state-ranked Versailles, the Raiders roared back from a 13 point second half deficit, to take a three point lead late in the fourth quarter. But a horrendous shooting performance at the line in the second half kept Versailles in the game, and the Tigers finally won 55-54 on, ironically, a pair of Justin Ahrens free throws with 3.2 seconds left.
“Typical Versailles-Russia game,” said a relieved Versailles head coach Travis Swank. “You can throw out the records, but these were two really good teams tonight. Credit to Spencer and his kids, they played tremendously tonight. We got a little stale in the fourth quarter, but had enough to pull out the win.”
“We didn’t make a lot of adjustments at halftime,” Cordonnier said in the quiet of the Raider locker room. “We told them that we needed to start defending. We knew that if the game was 65-70 points we had no chance of winning. We had to communicate and defend better and rebound. We didn’t do that in the first half and we did in the second. That was the difference.”
The Tigers took control early with a 13-0 run, and held a 32-19 lead midway through the second quarter. The Raiders were able to whittle the lead down to eight at 34-26 at the break.
A pair of Ahrns three-pointers restored the lead to 13 with two minutes to go in the third, and then a funny thing happened: the Tigers stopped scoring!
Russia held the Tigers scoreless for more than 7 minutes, and ripped off a 16-0 run to take their first lead since 4-2. Dylan Cordonnier, who scored a game-high 21 points, nailed back to back threes to tie the game at 47.
Versailles finally scored at the 2:39 mark of the fourth quarter, and a rare basket by Sam Barga tied the game at 51. Ahrens scored his only two-pointer of the second half to give the Tigers a 53-51 advantage, but Cole Tebbe scored to tie the game for Russia. He missed an ensuing free throw.
After a Versailles turnover, Russia called a timeout with 17.7 seconds to play. Dylan Cordonnier lost the ball near mid-court but was fouled in the scramble and sent to the line for two shots with 8.5 seconds left. He made the first but missed the second.
The Tigers got the ball to Ahrns, and the 6-6 junior was fouled with 3.2 seconds to play. He calmly went to the line and sank both shots to give Versailles the lead. The Raiders were out of timeouts, and a half court prayer by Cordonnier was not close.
“Their students were yelling ‘over-rated’, and I live for those kind of moments,” Ahrns said of his game winning shots. “I thought they were going in, but I struggled so bad in the second half. I just knew that I had to stay confident and knock them down.”
“Our guys just kept digging,” Cordonnier continued. “Even down eight at the end of the third quarter, I thought we were right there., We just had to get some stops. We sat down and guarded in the fourth quarter. There isn’t anything flashy about our kids. They just come to work and when we finally did that, we got back in the game.”
“We had a lot of adversity tonight,” admitted Swank. “We had a lot of foul trouble. Having Alex Wendel. our point guard with four fouls really hurt us because he controls our team, and settles us down and gets us into things. We had a lot of kids that stepped up and did well. Sam Barga, Cole Niekamp and Austin Knapke came off the bench and did what we expect them to do. They don’t always get a lot of minutes, and I’m proud of all of them.”
“This game seems like it is always close,” said Ahrns, who has committed to Ohio State. “I thought it was going to be that way. We had a lot of foul trouble in the second half, and we really struggled. But we came together when we needed it most, and got the win.”
Cordonnier led Russia with 21 points, 13 in the second half. Jack Dapore was the other Raider in double figures with 13. Ahrns led Versailles with 20, while Keaton McEldowney added 12, 9 of which came in the first quarter as Versailles jumped to a 22-12 advantage.
“Dylan has the ball in his hands ninety percent of the time,” Cordonnier said of his senior point guard. “He is what makes us go. We got him some open looks and he had the courage to take them and knocked them down. He’s a good shooter, and we are always telling him to shoot the ball. He had a huge three last night late against Anna, and was fantastic at the offensive end tonight.”
Versailles shot an even 50% from the floor while the Raiders were even better at 51%. The Tigers were 4 of 14 from the arc, compared to 8 of 13 for Russia. The free throw stat will have Raider fans singing the blues the rest of the weekend, as the Raiders were 6 of 15 for 40%. Versailles wasn’t much better at 5 of 9, but made the two that counted the most.
Versailles out-rebounded the Raiders 24-22, though Russia won the second half on the glass 15-10, and Russia had 14 turnovers to the Tigers 11.
Swank said the Tigers kept their composure late in the game.
“We have been trying to do that a lot this year, building through character and through adversity. It helps that we have a lot of experience from last year and that plays a major role in our success. We knew we would get tested tonight, and I’m glad we did. We needed to get tested to see if we had the character to get the job done. Fortunately we did.”
Ahrns said the win is another step in what the Tigers want to accomplish this season.
“Every win is a big win for us. We have goals set for our team and we really think we can be playing into March. We are still working on coming together as one. Our defense still needs some work, but we are playing well and having fun.”