LEES CREEK — Nearing the end of a difficult season, East Clinton nearly got its breakthrough Wednesday night against Blanchester.
The Astros stymied the Wildcats with an exotic defense and pushed Blanchester to the end. When the final buzzer sounded, the Wildcats hung on for a 57-54 victory.
But the Astros (0-21, 0-12 SBC) made them earn it.
“I’m so proud of the way the kids played,” EC head coach Tony Berlin said. “The kids have always played hard throughout the year.”
East Clinton played the majority of the game using two defenders – usually Jared Smith and Quinten Tolle – to harass BHS standout sophomore Brayden Sipple.
The Astros held Sipple to his lowest scoring output of the season – just 13 points. It was the rest of the Wildcat offense that built an early lead.
Hunter Bare, who just missed a season-high in points, scored 13 of his 17 points in the first half as the Wildcats took a 34-22 lead into the intermission.
Blanchester (10-10, 7-5) led by 11 entering the fourth. East Clinton cut the difference to 46-41 with 5:40 left.
A basket by Ian Heeg and three Sipple free throws pushed Blanchester’s lead back up to 10.
Then, Tolle led the Astro comeback. He scored nine straight EC points, cutting the Astro deficit to 54-50 with 56.8 left.
“He has stepped up,” Berlin said. “He has basketball IQ. He’s a kid that loves basketball. He’s going to help this program.”
It was a struggle at the free throw line for the Wildcats as they looked to put the game away. After four straight BHS misses from the stripe, Heeg converted one with 24.5 seconds left to put Blan back up by four, 57-53.
East Clinton was unable to get a quick bucket in the final 20 seconds, settling for a lone free throw with 0.5 left.
Bare had seven rebounds and five blocks to go with his team-high 17 points. Tanner Creager added eight points and nine rebounds. Jacksson Waialae had 11 points and seven rebounds.
The win is the fourth straight for Blanchester.
“Four in a row is four in a row, but we had guys standing wide open for the first time in their life and they didn’t know what to do,” BHS head coach Adam Weber said. “Quite honestly, we may have come in with the wrong mindset. Teams this time of year are dangerous, no matter what their record is.”
Berlin and his coaching staff devised the defensive gameplan and noted how hard it can be when open shots aren’t falling.
“We had five different defenses on the board,” Berlin said. “We were going to switch it up and try to slow them down a little bit. High school kids, if they miss a wide-open jumper, the first thing they think is, ‘They’re not even guarding me, and I missed it.’ Next thing you know, they’re aiming it a little bit. If they miss two or three, you’ve got them.”
Branson Smith led all scorers with 22 points. He also had five rebounds. Tolle finished with 14 points and nine rebounds.
As the games wind down on what has been a tough season, Berlin credits his coaching staff (Jordan Berlin, Roger Earley and Greg Roberts) and his players for working hard to continue to grow through a rebuilding season.
“I’m proud of my coaching staff because they’ve done an excellent job this year,” Berlin said. “They have suggested things to try to keep things fun.
“Games like that are why I coach – win, lose or draw. The kids come in here upset. That’s how you know they care. They want to win just as bad as anybody else.”
Blanchester and East Clinton will participate in the SBAAC Bud Phillips Scholarship games on Friday. Blanchester will travel to Wilmington while East Clinton will host Oyler.
Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019
@ East Clinton High School
Blanchester 57, East Clinton 54
(57) BLANCHESTER (fg-3fg-ft-tp) Ian Heeg 1-0-1-3, Tanner Creager 3-0-2-8, Brayden Sipple 4-0-5-13, Jacksson Waialae 4-1-2-11, Matthew Grogg 2-0-0-4, Jay Ashcraft 0-0-1-1, Hunter Bare 8-0-1-17. TOTALS 22-1-12-57.
(54) EAST CLINTON (fg-3fg-ft-tp) Branson Smith 9-3-1-22, Jared Smith 1-0-1-3, Quinten Tolle 6-1-1-14, Matt Mitchell 6-1-1-14, Colton Vadnais 1-0-0-2. TOTALS 22-7-3-54.
FIELD GOALS: B 22/53 (Bare 8/13, Waialae 4/14, Sipple 4/4); EC 22/56 (B. Smith 9/22, Tolle 6/8, Mitchell 5/11)
3 POINT FIELD GOALS: B 1/12; EC 7/21 (B. Smith 3/8, Mitchell 3/7)
FREE THROWS: B 12/24 (Sipple 5/7); EC 3/7
REBOUNDS: B 42 (Creager 9, Bare 7, Waialae 7, Heeg 5, Sipple 5); EC 31 (Tolle 9, B. Smith 5)
ASSISTS: B 9 (Waialae 4, Creager 3); EC 9
STEALS: B 9 (Sipple 3); EC 10 (Tolle 5)
BLOCKED SHOTS: B 7 (Bare 5, Sipple 2); EC 2
TURNOVERS: B 14; EC 15
Matt Sexton covers high school sports for the News Journal. Follow him on Twitter @bymattsexton.