Jackson Center got very big contributions from three underclassmen down the stretch, and avenged two regular season defeats to send Fairlawn home for the year.
Piqua – Piqua High School athletic officials proclaim, rightly so, that the D-IV sectional hosted annually at Garbry Gym is one of the premier small school sectionals in the state.
The Fairlawn Jets and Jackson Center Tigers added another chapter to that reputation Friday night.
Playing before a sold-out crowd, the fourth-seeded Tigers made critical plays at both ends of the floor down the stretch and upended the second-seeded Jets 44-41 in the Upper bracket sectional final.
“It’s a huge win for us,” said an ecstatic Jackson Center coach Scott Elchert. “We had some tough losses during the season, and we just emphasized that we have to learn from this and come February and March, we have to be playing our best basketball and we have to be tough. We really showed our toughness tonight.”
The Tigers, behind three-pointers from Bryce Sosby and Trent Platfoot, scored the final 10 points of the third quarter to take a 29-23 lead.
The lead would reach 7 at 38-31, but the Jets, who had been out-scored 38-23 since a game-opening 8-0 run, was not about to let its record-setting season end without a fight.
They promptly put together another 8-0 run, and when Kody Curtner buried a three from the high left, the Jets led 39-38 with 1:12 left to play.
Brady Wildermuth made a pair of free throws with 30 seconds left to give the Tigers a 40-39 advantage, and 6-2 freshman Calvin Winner buried two more with 15 seconds to play. After a timeout, the Jets turned the ball over, and Bryce Sosby made another pair from the stripe with 6 seconds to go to seal the win for Tigers.
“We were confident coming into tonight,” the 6-6 Wildermuth said, as he received congratulations from both adults and classmates. “We thought we should have won the second one (a 53-44 Fairlawn win) but let that slip away. We have the best coaches in the world. They believe in us and prepared us to win this game.
“We have struggled at times at the line, but tonight we kept our focus. We always practice our free throws and tonight, they fell. It was a great feeling.”
Fairlawn was the aggressor at the start, forcing two ten-second violations in the backcourt in the Tigers first three possessions. Luke Hickman hit a three and Nathan Lessing scored three points in a game opening 8-0 run, but the Tigers found their footing and trailed just 8-6 after a quarter.
“We wanted to play full-court the entire game,” Fairlawn coach Justin Tidwell explained. “We wanted to play pressure defense, even in the half court. We told our kids that no matter who had the ball, we wanted to be right in their face. But they did a good job of handling our pressure and running their offense.”
“That’s the way they played us both times,” Elchert explained. “They came out with a lot of emotion and intensity. We told the kids that this game was not going to be decided in the first four minutes. We knew we would have to play 32 minutes of more. They understood that sometime Fairlawn is going to put you in that situation. We just kept playing.”
A Trent Platfoot three gave the Tigers their first lead at 11-10 early in the second quarter. Hickman would score five more in the second quarter for the Jets, who led 18-17 at the break.
Fairlawn led by 4 before the Jackson Center run to end the third, and Jackson’s 7-point lead with 3:22 left in the fourth was the Tigers biggest lead of the night. That set up the hectic finish.
Lessing, the Shelby County League’s all-time leading scorer, never found his rhythm. The 6-3 senior was 2 of 8 from the floor and finished the game with 9 points. He concluded his outstanding career with 2,223 points.
“Jackson is known for their fundamental, on ball defense and they did a great job making plays when they needed to,” said Fairlawn coach Justin Tidwell. “They did a great job of taking Nathan away from our offense.
“It’s a tough way to end his career, but Nathan has a lot of bright stuff ahead of him, that’s for sure. He scored over 2000 points and is in the top 25 scorers in Ohio high school basketball history. He has had just a phenomenal career.”
The Jets made Elchert look like a prophet early on.
“Lessing will be our focus defensively, but you have to be careful,” the coach said Tuesday night after the Tigers semifinal win. “Some teams pay so much attention to him that someone else goes off. They are good enough to do that.”
Friday night, it was Hickman. The 6-4 junior hit 4 threes and scored a game high 16 points. Curtner, a 6-1 senior, added 11 for Fairlawn, which finished 21-4. The 21 wins is a school record.
“You need guys to step up and Luke really did,” Tidwell continued. “They were sucked inside on Nate, and Luke was outside and made some big shots.”
Jackson got 14 points from Platfoot, a 5-11 sophomore who hit 5 of 7 from the floor, including two threes. Wildermuth had 13 and grabbed 7 rebounds despite drawing contact seemingly every time down the floor. Sosby added 11 and was the principal defender on Lessing most of the night.
“Bryce was really big for us tonight,” praised his coach. “He always had the ball in his hands, he guarded Lessing, and he scored 11 points. Platfoot had 14 and played well, and Brady had another solid night. Our support players really played well.”
Jackson finished the game 15 of 29 for 52% 3 of 7 behind the arc for 43% and 11 of 14 at the line for 79%. The Jets were 14 of 35 from the floor for 40% 8 of 17 behind the arc for 47%, but a fatal 5 of 13 from the line for just 39%.
Fairlawn won the rebounding battle 22-18, and had 13 turnovers to 12 for Jackson. The Tigers made the most of their chances, however, and had 18 points off turnovers to Fairlawn’s 8.
“Free throw shooting was huge for us tonight,” Elchert acknowledged. “We had guys step up. Any time you have a freshman (Winner) go to the line in that situation and knock two down, that speaks volumes about your kids.”
“It gets better every time,” Wildermuth said with a wide smile about the Tigers return to the District finals at UD Arena. “We have a week to get ready. We just have to prepare and go down there and play our best. We’ll be ready.”
“You have to give our kids a lot of credit,” Tidwell concluded. “They won a school record 21 games, and did a great job getting things rolling. They are a great group of kids, there is no doubt about it.”
Elchert was asked where the win fell on his list of accomplishments at Jackson Center.
“It’s big for this group because we have had to battle all year. We truly were an underdog this year. We lost 6 games this season and all six were in the league. It’s big right now, but the biggest thing is we get to move on and play another game next Friday. We are excited to still be playing.”