Looking for an edge in a tight game, Mickey Cozart wasn’t going to dismiss potential motivation from any sector.
Locked in a tooth-and-nail affair with Vinton County at McAfee Gymnasium, Cozart — Athens head boys basketball coach — made sure the Bulldogs knew the outcome of a game on the other side of the county.
There, in Albany, Meigs upended Alexander to throw open the door to first place in the Tri-Valley Conference Ohio Division. In The Plains, Cozart made sure Athens knew what was on the line.
“We heard the score. We told our guys on the bench they were losing. It seemed to spark them,” Cozart said.
It apparently did. Athens scored 25 fourth-quarter points, and found another gear to get by Vinton County 72-63 on Tuesday night. The victory vaulted the Bulldogs (13-5, 8-2 TVC Ohio) into sole possession of first place in the league standings. Alexander (7-2 TVC Ohio), Meigs (7-3) and Vinton County (12-6, 6-3 TVC Ohio) remain in contention, but Athens has the lead.
Athens may open pregame warmups with just eight players in uniform, and isn’t expected to have senior forward Isaiah Butcher available again in the regular season due to a suspension. But the Bulldogs may have enough for a championship anyway.
“It’s these guys,” Cozart said. “They have more heart, more fight and they do not quit. And they never believe they are out of a game.
“They are fun group to coach.”
Combo-guards Brayden Markins and Brayden Whiting powered Athens with 23 points apiece. Markins hit 10 of 20 shots, most often on start-and-stop forays to the rim, and Whiting converted 11 of 24 shots — mid-range elevated jumpers were his speciality — as the duo took turns carrying a heavy offensive load.
“They put on a show tonight, they absolutely put on a show,” Cozart said.
Nate Trainer missed just one shot, and added 13 points and eight rebounds for the Bulldogs. Glue guy Will Matters added seven points, five assists and three steals.
Athens won the game in the fourth. The Bulldogs hit 9 of 13 shots in the quarter and earned eight free throw attempts. Markins and Whiting combined for 16 points in the period, and Athens finished the game on an 18-9 run after it was knotted 54-54 with 5:23 to go.
The Vikings were blistering hot in the first half when they shot 60 percent, but cooled off in the second. And Vinton County failed to impact the game defensively.
“Our defense was terrible, if I’m being honest,” said VC head coach Matt Combs. “We had a couple guys struggle, but we still scored enough to win.
“But we just didn’t guard them. It was a layup drill in the fourth quarter it seemed like.”
Gavin Arbaugh was sensational for the Vikings, however, as he finished with a game-high 28 points and eight rebounds while shooting 11 of 25 from the field. Lance Montgomery added 15 points.
And the game was tight until the last five minutes. Neither team led by more than five until that point. There were 27 ties and lead-changes through the first 3.5 quarters.
Like Athens, the Vikings were playing with a chance to climb into first place.
“We came in here tonight excited, really felt like we had a chance to stick our nose in there,” Combs said. “But usually the team that plays harder — rebounds and gets the loose balls — wins, and tonight that was Athens.”
Neither team gained much separation until late. Vinton County forced the last tie — at 54-54 with 5:23 left — when Arbaugh finished off a three-point play on a drive down the lane.
But Athens landed a game-deciding 13-4 run over the next four minutes. Markins gave Athens the lead for good on a three-point play of his own on a cut to the rim. Whiting netted a contested jumper in the lane, and Matters scored on a cut to the rim of his own for a 61-56 lead.
Arbaugh hit two free throws with 2:56 left to pull the Vikings to within 61-58, but Markins scored on a cross-over drive down the lane and Whiting followed up a miss in transition with a put-back bucket and the Bulldogs led 65-58 with two minutes to go. After Trainer scored, again on a cut to the rim without the ball, Athens led 67-58 with 90 seconds left and then salted the game away at the foul line.
“We attacked and…we rebounded pretty exceptionally well down the stretch of that thing,” Cozart said.
Vinton County trailed 32-31 at the half despite shooting 12 of 20 from the field in the first half thanks to 11 first-half turnovers.
“You shoot 60 percent and you’re down a point at halftime,” Combs said. “That’s a recipe for disaster.”
Athens has two league games remaining. If it wins both, at worst a shared league title will be won. The Bulldogs will be at River Valley on Friday night, and then will host Wellston in its TVC-Ohio finale next Tuesday. Athens also has a home non-league bout against Logan on Saturday.
Vinton County has home games left with contenders Meigs (Friday) and Alexander (next Tuesday), and then wraps up league play on Feb. 14 at Wellston. The Vikings will need to sweep all three games and hope for an Athens loss for a share of the title.
“You got to take it one game at a time and do that. How the league shakes out is how it shakes out,” Combs said.
“We’ve got to worry about ourselves and get better.”
Athens will try to seal up a championship in the next seven days. Butcher won’t be part of the chase however.
“I’m going to coach the guys who are in the locker room, and we’re going to go to work,” Cozart said. “It’s unfortunate. He’s a senior. We hate it for this ballclub. But guys are stepping up and that’s what you have to do.”
Athens 72, Vinton County 63
Vinton Co. 17 14 17 15 — 63
Athens 15 17 15 25 — 72
VINTON COUNTY 63 (12-6, 6-3 TVC Ohio)
Will Arthur 2 0-0 4, Gavin Arbaugh 11 3-3 28, Zayne Karr 1 0-0 2, Lance Montgomery 6 2-4 15, Esiason Herold 1 0-0 2, Aaron Stevens 2 1-2 6, Eli Radebaugh 1 0-0 3, Braylon Damron 1 0-0 3; TOTALS 25 6-9 63; 3-point goals — Seven (Arbaugh 3, Montgomery 1, Stevens 1, Radebaugh 1, Damron 1).
ATHENS 72 (13-5, 8-2 TVC Ohio)
Andrew Stephens 2 1-2 5, Brayden Markins 10 2-4 23, Nate Trainer 5 3-5 13, Reece Wallace 0 0-0 0, Brayden Whiting 11 0-0 23, Jack Cornwell 0 0-0 0, Will Matters 2 3-4 7, Jacob Salyers 0 1-4 1; TOTALS 30 10-19 72; 3-point goals — Two (Markins 1, Whiting 1).
TEAM STATISTICS/INDIVIDUAL LEADERS
Field goals — Vinton County 25-54 (.463), 3-point goals 7-21 (.333); Athens 30-63 (.476), 3-point goals 2-12 (.167); Free throws — Vinton County 6-9 (.667); Athens 10-19 (.526); Rebounds — Vinton County 34 (Arbaugh 8), Athens 33 (Trainer 8); Assists — Vinton County 10 (Arbaugh/Montgomery 3), Athens 12 (Matters 5); Steals — Vinton County 4 (Montgomery 2), Athens 9 (Matters 3); Blocks — Vinton County 1, Athens 1; Turnovers — Vinton County 17, Athens 8; Personal fouls — Vinton County 15, Athens 10; Technical fouls — None; JV Score — Vinton County 35, Athens 34.