ST. CLAIRSVILLE - The Ohio Division III Eastern District Tournament had everything everyone expected Tuesday night.
There was a huge crowd, great atmosphere and two teams laying it on the line for 32 minutes.
The unfortunate thing was that one team had to lose.
Photo by SETH STASKEY
Union Local’s Gavin Porter, left, drives to the basket on Martins Ferry’s Jake Barritt on Tuesday night.
Martins Ferry proved the adage that it's tough to beat a team three times to be true inside the Health and Physical Education Center at Ohio University Eastern.
The upstart Purple Riders, the seventh seed in the sectional, used a strong fourth quarter to upset top-seeded Union Local, 52-49, to earn their second straight trip to the district title game.
"This team is playing at a very high level at the right time of the year, which is our goal every year," Martins Ferry coach Jeff Sabatino said. "We're usually pretty good this time of year. We're a really young team, but I like how we're playing and when push came to shove, we made plays."
While the Riders are headed back to practice today to prepare for another meeting with Garaway, which dispatched Fort Frye, 48-44, in the opener, the Jets complete their season with an impressive 22-2 record.
"I am happy with my guys," said UL coach Ben Porter, who had his team atop the Associated Press' Division III poll for several weeks before finishing third. "I thought we played hard, and that's all we can ask for. Everyone left it on the court and that's all you can ask from a high school kid."
There were a handful of times when it seemed like the Jets were set to embark on one of their trademark runs and open up the margin a bit. However, each time, the Riders had an answer.
Late in the first half, the Jets owned their biggest lead at 25-17, but the Riders closed with the final six points of the half.
As Sabatino was trying to recall the first half in his mind, he felt Union Local might have owned a much healthier upperhand. If it weren't for the play of sophomore Emilio Appolloni. The 6-foot-8 sophomore delivered one of his finest outings. He nearly single handedly kept the Riders in the contest, scoring nine of his 13 in the first half.
The Jets, basically unfazed by the Riders' run, came out in the third and do what they do. They knocked in three shots from behind the arc, but another late spurt by the Riders, fueled by senior standout Robert Vargo and Appolloni, made it a 38-35 Jets' lead after three.
The Riders took the lead at 39-38 on back-to-back buckets by sophomore James Edwards and Vargo. However, the Jets responded with four consecutive makes at the foul line to take a 42-39 lead.
"Coach Sab can talk about how they're young, but they're tournament tested," Porter said. "We expected nothing less than the fight we were in."
The Riders proceeded to score the next seven points. Vargo knocked in a short jumper and Edwards netted five in a row, including a conventional three-point play to put Ferry up, 46-42 with just over three minutes to play.
The Jets, who have battled back to win plenty of close games during the course of the season, got two free throws from junior Colton McKivitz and a deep triple from senior Eric Dunfee to take a 47-46 lead.
The lead was short lived. Ferry's Arjay Burress muscled up a bucket on the interior, but junior Kaleb McDiffitt put the Jets back on top on the ensuing trip with a jumper.
The Riders didn't press any panic buttons after watching UL regain the lead. They just went into Vargo, who admitted after the game that he'd been waiting for a possible rematch with Union Local for more than a month.
The Eastern District's Player of the Year and all-Ohio candidate powered up for his 20th point of the game.
"Robert really got fouled on that play, and the ball spun away, and somehow, it still went in," Sabatino said. "That was probably the key to the game."
The Jets had a good look from behind the arc, but it was too long and Edwards rebounded. After UL fouled three more times to finally send the Riders to the line, Edwards found the bottom of the net twice for the 52-49 lead.
Union Local had three really good looks, but failed to get any to drop, setting off a wild celebration for the Purple Riders.
"I told our kids don't hang their heads because they have no reason to," Porter said. "We had our chances today, but a couple shots didn't go down and that's basketball."
Ferry was extremely balanced in the scoring column. Vargo's production leaves him five points shy of 1,000 in his career.
Appolloni and Edwards went for 13 and 11, respectively. Junior guard Jake Barritt only recorded one bucket, but he handled the floor game well and was a menace on defense.
Union Local was led by talented sophomore Trenton Tipton for the third straight tournament game. He poured in 15 points. McDiffitt and sophomore David Paulick evenly split 18.