Derrick Webb, Staff Writer
WAVERLY — In the critical stages of a marquee Southern Ohio Conference showdown at Waverly, Wheelersburg decided to play its best basketball.
The Pirates, who had four players reach double-digit scoring figures, found themselves trailing by seven points at halftime. But in the fourth quarter, led by veteran leadership, coach Steven Ater’s group shifted into a second gear.
The result was an eight-minute period that saw Wheelersburg score 25 points, which fueled a 60-51 win over the Tigers on Tuesday — by all accounts, a key victory in the SOC II title race.
“You go in down seven at halftime and I thought our kids … they’re experienced, that’s the thing about this group,” Ater said. “I think they took it personal where most people said they weren’t going to win the league again. They took that as a challenge. So they went into halftime, knowing we had 16 more minutes to play. I thought their mindset wasn’t fixated on us being down. It was, ‘Hey, let’s fix the problems and play better in the second half.’”
While Waverly got an early spark from Trey Robertson, the Pirates answered with a strong outing from junior Eli Swords.
In the first half, Swords’ ability to knock down shots and clean the glass kept Wheelersburg (7-0, 6-0 SOC II) within striking distance. That proved paramount late in the game.
“Eli is a guy who, if you don’t have on the scouting report, you should,” Ater said. “It’s because he shoots the ball so well. He’s really been working on his ability to get to the rim and score. Tonight, you saw the result of that. If shots aren’t falling for him, he’s guarding better and sparking his offense. He’s playing a complete game right now. Really proud of him.”
Within the first 65 seconds, Robertson scored twice to give Waverly (4-1, 2-1 SOC II) a 4-0 lead. Swords answered with a 3-point play at the 6:35 mark before giving the Pirates a 9-8 lead with 3:24 to go.
Swords scored again to beat the buzzer, off a full-court assist from Matthew Miller, to make it a 16-12 tally heading into the second.
With 6:27 left in the first half, Robertson hit a 3 to tie the game at 16-16. The junior guard hit a floater with 5:22 to go before Mark Stulley dialed long distance, pushing Waverly’s lead to 25-20 before the Tigers hit 2-of-4 free throws down the stretch to make it 27-20 at the break.
But like its counterpart, Wheelersburg made a run of its own in third.
After Gage Wheeler put the Tigers ahead 30-20 with 7:38 left, Miller, Carter McCorkle and J.J. Truitt combined to cut the deficit to 32-28 at the 4:02 mark. Robertson hit a 3 with 3:28 left, making it 35-28, before the Pirates chipped away to cut the lead to 38-35 heading to the fourth.
“Our kids played so hard tonight. We made a nice little run and [Waverly’s] pressure and some of the things they did sped us up. They kept us on our toes,” Ater said. “But I thought we did a really good job overall. I’m really happy with the overall effort.”
With 7:48 remaining, Truitt tied the game at 38-38 with a trey before Miller followed suit at the 5:56 mark, putting Wheelersburg on top at 45-44. Kenny Sanderlin got in on the action, pushing the Pirates lead to 48-45 before McCorkle and Truitt made it a 52-45 ballgame with 1:51 to go.
Swords then provided the dagger with a 3, coming at the 1:18 mark, for a 55-48 score. From that point, the Pirates knocked down their freebies and got the job done defensively.
Truitt scored a team-high 17 points while Swords added a double-double of 14 points and 10 rebounds. McCorkle helped out with 10 points and eight boards while Miller also tallied 10 points alongside five rebounds and two assists.
Robertson led all scorers with 27 points while Will Futhey added in eight points and six rebounds for the Tigers. Wheeler also had eight points and Stulley finished with five points and three assists.
Both teams are back in conference action on Friday. Waverly travels to Northwest that evening while Wheelersburg plays host to Eastern.
“We’ve obviously got to clean up some things offensively. [Waverly’s] press bothered us and it created some turnovers,” Ater said. “So we need to be more solid against that and attack it in a smart way. Once we figured out where the holes were in the second half, we attacked. For a team that was down at halftime, and one that tied the game on the first possession in the fourth quarter, it was like new life for us. But it’s just about getting better each day.”
Wheelersburg: 16-4-15-25 — 60
Waverly: 12-15-11-13 — 51
Wheelersburg: 21-49 FG, 14-20 FT, 4-11 3pt., 32 rebounds (Swords 10), 11 turnovers, 6 assists (Miller 2). Scoring: Truitt 17, Swords 14, McCorkle 10, Miller 10, Sanderlin 7, Adkins 2.
Waverly: 20-54 FG, 5-11 FT, 6-23 3pt., 22 rebounds (Futhey 6), 10 turnovers, 7 assists (Stulley 3). Scoring: Robertson 27, Wheeler 8, Futhey 8, Stulley 5, Brown 3.