A faster, stronger, athletic Roger Bacon left little doubt Wednesday with the Versailles Tigers…why so many state basketball titles go through Cincinnati.
Kettering – The question, of course, following Roger Bacon’s 61-46 win over Versailles Wednesday in the Division III regional semi-final game: Is a 21-4 team from Cincinnati, ranked 10th, better than a 25-1 team from Darke County, ranked 2nd, just because they’re from Cincinnati?
Well, to the approximate 3,000 in Trent Arena who witnessed it, the Spartans made a pretty strong case for themselves as they knocked out the Versailles Tigers, the last remaining hopeful in area southwest boys basketball for 2017.
They shot the ball slightly better, overall, 41% to 37%.
They were considerably better from three-point range, 42% to 27%.
They were about even-Steven from the free throw line…both teams in the mid 60s.
And they were about the same size. The biggest player on either team topped out at about 6’6” – James Johnson for Bacon and Justin Ahrens for Versailles.
But there was a noticeable difference in athleticism, as some prior to the game had predicted; and an obvious difference in experience against premium competition, as others had guaranteed. “This ain’t football,” a vocal member of the Roger Bacon student section declared at the end of the first half Wednesday, a veiled reference to the MAC. “We play basketball and welcome to the GCL (Greater Catholic League).”
The Spartans had done their homework, obviously, against the likes of Elder, LaSalle, Chaminade, Fenwick, and St. X. And while the student section had studied up on every detail and nuance pertaining to the Tigers’ record for heckling purposes (God love ‘em), the five on the court, declared coach Brian Neal afterwards, “just did what we do best. We play defense.”
Brother, did they!
The same team that TKO’d Bethel in district play last week, 75-30, smothered the Versailles attack, from forcing the Tigers to start their offensive sets too far from the rim, to challenging every shot with emphasis if they got to the rim.
In between, they were quicker to loose balls. They forced the Tigers to play faster than the manner in which they were comfortable. Passes were hurried, too hard. Shots were hurried, and too hard…or not hard enough. It seemed, as a photographer at one end of the court put it, “that there was too much air in the ball.”
Bacon jumped out to a 17-10 lead at the end of the first quarter.
They extended the lead to 31-18 by halftime, ratcheting up the pressure and challenging absolutely every possession. The Tigers had not seen defensive commitment of this kind, in the MAC, or even in practice.
“It’s hard to simulate,” admitted coach Travis Swank afterwards. “You try, and you even play against six, but it’s not the same.”
For example, Keaton McEldowney picked up a loose ball at midcourt in the second half with a 15 foot advantage on Bacon guard, Brandon Bibbs. McEldowney set sail for the rim only to have Bibbs catch him, get between him and the rim on the shot attempt, and force points from the foul line instead of an easy layup.
It got no worse, or better, in the third quarter, as stunned supporters in orange and black looked on. The two teams played to a virtual stalemate, 9 to 9, but that 13-point halftime lead of Bacon’s must have looked like Fort Knox.
“If you’re going to play for us you’d better be prepared to defend,” said Brian Neal later, outside his locker room. “Look, we went through about six weeks where we couldn’t make a shot. And the only way we could score was off our defense. The only way we could win a game was off our defense. So if you want to play here, you’d better play the way we played tonight or not bother.”
But that 25-1 Versailles team didn’t get there Wednesday without a few trying moments of its own during the course of January and February. Swank showed amazing instinct, and patience, well beyond his years, perhaps. As fouls mounted on his starters, he subbed freely, fouled freely, slowed the game down in attempt to trade two-point possessions for whatever Roger Bacon could salvage from the foul line.
“We knew they were an average foul shooting team,” said Swank, who never stopped coaching. “We decided to take our chances.”
It worked…kind of. Over a three-minute span in the middle of the fourth quarter Swank’s strategy shrank the Spartan advantage to single digits, but never less than 7 points. In the meantime, they made a couple of shots.
Keaton McEldowney hit a three – Justin Ahrens, who had suffered through the worst shooting night of his season (4 of 19) hit a three, while Roger Bacon proved to be sketchy at the other end from the foul line.
They got less sketchy as time ran down on the game and Versailles’ sparkling season. The Tigers simply ran out of tricks in their book. 61-46 may, or may not have, reflected their 25-2 record…and vice-versa. Who can know?
“They just took us out of everything we were comfortable of doing the whole year,” said Swank of the Roger Bacon defense. “Even Dunbar didn’t come after us like that. We couldn’t get the ball to where we wanted it to go. We probably dribbled the ball too much, instead of passing it. But credit to them, because they forced the issue and caused what happened here tonight.”
Versailles finished with 37% shooting with Justin Ahrens working like he’d never worked before to score a team-high 16 points. Keaton McEldowney was impressive, and efficient, in joining him in double figure with 11. A.J. Ahrens had 8 and Connor Custenborder finished his Tigerball career with 6 hard-earned points.
Roger Bacon moves on to the regional final Saturday against Summit Country Day by shooting 41%, and shared the wealth of their 61 points, having three in double figures. Craig McGee had a game-high 17, while James Johnson chipped in 15 and Brandon Bibbs finished with 12.
It was painful. Anticipation always is when it’s stopped that coldly. So heart of hearts…was the #10 team that much better than the #2 team just because they play LaSalle and St. X; because their ground rules for playing at all center around one’s commitment to stop an opponent – any opponent – from scoring?
“At times we had it down pretty close,” said Swank after the rest of the media had left. “I think if we played them ten times we’d give them their fair share. But we just didn’t come prepared to play tonight. We didn’t have our ‘A’ game and they came out fired up.
“We didn’t take their first punch very well. We had a couple of easy ones at the beginning that didn’t go in. They hit all their shots early, and it just kinda’ snowballed from that point on. We couldn’t climb our way out of it.”
And to the point of how you prepare for team like Roger Bacon, with that kind of athleticism, that kind of competitive zeal, and that kind of defensive disposition…how can you do that for a Versailles team that returns plenty of firepower with Justin Ahrens and the experience to make another run in their senior season?
“You have to go find those kinds of teams,” said Swank, resolutely. “You seek them out and try to play that kind of competition because you know you’re going to see that style if you get to this point in the tournament. You see it every year with these Cincinnati schools, so in the future we’ll have people on our schedule that’ll prepare us to make that run.”
But for at least for another year, be it Roger Bacon or Summit Country Day…the Division III title (whoever wins it) will have to go through Cincinnati!