The Versailles Tigers stamped their ticket for the regional round of the tournament Tuesday with a “perfect” first half…and a second half that had the faithful literally turning orange and black.
Dayton – Afterwards, Versailles coach Travis Swank said that at this stage any tournament win is a good win.
And indeed, the Tigers are moving on to next week’s regional round of the tournament after Thursday’s 72-59 win over North College Hill.
But the manner in which Swank’s 25-1 Tigers won turned out to be a little wild, a little wonderful…and in the second half, “watch out”, as North College Hill staged a furious third quarter comeback to eliminate a 38-14 halftime deficit.
38-14! That’s how well Versailles played for the first sixteen minutes of the game. They came out firing – Justin Ahrens, Alex Wendel, Connor Custenborder, A. J. Ahrens, and Austin Knapke – a sign that on this night the stars were indeed in their right course.
They all made shots.
They executed Swank’s game plan of motion offense to perfection.
They were patient, made good decisions, and simply had North College Hill, a team that had lost eight of its first 15 games this season, out of whack at both ends.
They shot 68.9% from the floor, while holding NCH to just 19%. They led 18 to 6 at the end of one…38-14 by halftime.
“I’ve been working on my shot a lot lately,” said Connor Custenborder, whose three-pointer and runner from the lane helped ignite the Tigers in the first quarter. “I struggled late in the year, so I’ve been spending extra time in the gym after practice. I took a thousand shots last Sunday…just trying to get better.”
It worked. This all happened in those first sixteen minutes; and when they went to the locker room there had to be some that began making plans for next week’s regional round at Trent Arena, across town.
“But Coach told us at halftime,” said Justin Ahrens afterwards. “He said things like this happen and the other team ends up coming back and winning.”
The man (Swank) is sage beyond his years.
His warning almost became manifest. For as good as Versailles was in the first halt, uh, well…you might guess where this is going. Eh?
North College Hill came out in full court pressure, and literally stole the first two buckets of the second half. Suddenly it was a scene that resembled blood in a tank full of sharks. The Trojans were prowling for more, and inexplicably the Tigers played right into their hands.
Patient in the first half, now it was them that got out of whack. Trying to throw pass after pass over the top of the the NCH press to beat them down the floor, the Trojans outran those passes, picked them off – like the free safety does in football – and ran them back for scores.
Versailles suddenly seemed heavy-footed, as the smaller, quicker Trojans drove the ball to the lane and the rim and scored. Worse, they were picking up fouls with the made shots, and converting. Hapless at the line in the first half, NCH shot 84% from the stripe in the third quarter.
Worse yet, a little 5’8” guard named Lorenzo Sparks began casting long, rainbow three-pointers from 23 feet…and suddenly, was hitting them. One, two, three out of four attempts over a four-minute span, while Versailles was having problems answering on their own offensive possessions.
The lead, 24 points at halftime, was cut to ten. So what went wrong?
“The kids had practiced hard all week, bought into what we preached, and we came out in the first half and just played really well, almost perfect,” said Swank. “Our ball movement was superior, we had them spinning, and our defense was right there, too.
“But when we came out in the second half and we got a little stale with the ball movement. We just stopped doing what we’ve been teaching all year long. Our motion was poor, we were making one pass instead of two or three or four, their quickness picked up, and they changed some things on their offense, too. We got a little tired on defense. But you take a win any way you can get it.”
Justin Ahrens put it more emphatic terms.
“Honestly, I think we just lost focus,” he said. “It could have been worse, I guess, but we should have beaten them by a lot more than we did. But we came out with the win.”
Outside his own locker room, NCH coach Shannon Minor had yet another angle on the comeback.
“We didn’t play well in the first half, it’s just simple,” he said. “But we also knew that they couldn’t match our speed and quickness. And we came out with that in the second half. It worked out to be a timing thing, like the ‘Rocky’ movie where he waits to spring on the Russian fighter at the end. I’m proud of how we came back…we just got too far behind.
“But they’re a good team, and when you’ve got a 6’5” guard who’s going to play in the Big Ten in a couple of years it’s hard to guard him. Our guys played hard, and better in the second half, but he (Ahrens) was the difference.”
Frustration set in. Ahrens, who had a pair of house-rattling dunks prior to the fourth quarter, finally found himself wide open in the open court and attempted to change the course of things with one emphatic slam…only he was too amped up and it ricocheted high off the back of the rim and back downcourt to NCH.
Free throws, a sure thing in the first half (75%), were anything but as NCH kept sending the one Tiger after another to the line to stop the clock. Suddenly, the rim shrunk as they missed 2 of 4 in the third quarter (50%) and 7 of 17 in the fourth (58%).
“You hope that was a result of fatigue, too,” said Swank. “We were hitting ‘em in the first half, and we had the guys we wanted at the line.”
But the good news…they righted themselves. Twice NCH got the lead down to a 10-point margin, but never less than that. The Tigers began making that extra pass, found open men streaking to the rim, made some late shots…and in the final two minutes got a handle on Lorenzo Sparks, as well. Sparks missed his last three attempts (from NBA range) without as much as drawing iron.
“Uh, I guess there was some frustration in there,” said Ahrens. “But this just proves that we can overcome anything. We’ve seen just about everything this year.”
For the night, the Tigers finished on the up side of 50% from the floor (56.5% on 26 of 46) and hit 4 of 10 from beyond the arc (40%). They finished just 16 of 27 from the foul line, however, just 59%.
Justin Ahrens’ 24 points led them, but he had plenty of help: Alex Wendel (11), Connor Custenborder (10), and Austin Knapke finished with 10 points. Four players in double figures!
NCH finished shooting 34% from the field, but could not overcome the slow start. Lorezno Sparks was game-high with his 31 points, but only one other Trojan, Charles Swain, had double figures with 10 points.
The question now, can Versailles possibly play as well for two halves against Roger Bacon next week, as they played in the first half Thursday against North College Hill? Bacon blasted Bethel in the final game of the evening, 75-30.
“I feel like if we can play the way we did in the first half tonight, play that way for two halves, I think we’ll be a tough out all the way through,” said Swank. “We have a pretty complete team, even though we really don’t have a post presence like other teams. But we got a lot of guys who are unselfish and share the ball, and if we can keep doing that I think we’ve got a good shot.”
The best news of the night? They’re going to get another shot, a good shot – at least one more!