Brayden Markins calmly sank a final free throw, celebrating with a slight fist pump as the Tri-Valley Conference Ohio Division is officially a two-team race to the finish line.
The Athens Bulldogs protected their home court, and in the process got a measure of revenge against the Alexander Spartans.
Brayden Whiting scored 25 points, as Athens knocked off Alexander 61-57 in front of a packed house at McAfee Gymnasium on Friday.
Athens (11-4 overall, 6-1 TVC-Ohio) pulled even with Alexander atop the TVC-Ohio standings thanks to the pivotal victory.
"It's huge, biggest game of the year," Whiting said. "I'm happy with the way it went."
Whiting, a junior, was a big reason for the Bulldogs' winning night. His 25 points came on 9 of 18 shooting, including 4 of 6 from 3-point range. He also grabbed nine rebounds.
"My mindset coming in was just rebound, play defense and shots will come," Whiting said. "I think it worked pretty good."
While the contest was close down the stretch, Athens never trailed after Whiting's second-quarter 3-pointer provided a 20-17 lead.
Whiting scored 15 points in the first half alone, forcing the Spartans (11-4, 6-1 TVC-Ohio) to chase the Bulldogs the entire second half.
"I thought he was an absolute monster in the first half," Athens coach Mickey Cozart said. "He came out aggressive. I thought he played extremely well. He can just do that. He's that guy. He can shoot the basketball. He can do a little bit of everything, but he can shoot the basketball, that's for sure."
Whiting's shooting was part of a key statistic for the Bulldogs, who made half of their 3-point tries (7 of 14), while the Spartans made just 3 of their 22 shots from long range.
"Whiting, he's an excellent player," Alexander assistant coach Jordan Hill said. "He got hot in the first half and we lost him a few times on some rotational things and he made us pay, making some big shots. That got us behind the eight-ball to start the game. Just seemed like we got a lot of good looks and none of those good looks seemed to fall, especially early."
While the night was one of celebration for Athens, it was a somber mood in the Alexander locker room afterwards.
Not only did the Spartans miss a chance to take a two-game lead on Athens, but senior point guard J.K. Kearns suffered a fourth-quarter injury that forced him out of the game.
Kearns went up for a shot and was fouled, landing awkwardly with 6:39 left in the game. He immediately reached for his knee, and had to be carried back to the locker room.
He finished with 12 points, three rebounds and an assist in the game.
Kearns, a three-year starter, is a captain and leader in many ways for the Spartans. That was evident when he made his way, on crutches, back to sit behind the bench in the final moments of the game. He was unable to play, but still providing encouragement for his teammates.
"He is a true student-athlete who gives everything he has at everything he's involved in," said Hill, who was speaking in place of head coach Jim Kearns, who left after the game to take his son to the hospital. "He's a tremendous kid to coach. He's a tremendous captain and leader for this team. So whatever comes about with his diagnosis, it's life. Sometimes life is tough, especially when you have a bunch of kids invested in this team like they all are."
The Spartans trailed 46-36 at the time of Kearns' injury, and Athens would push the advantage to 50-36 after Markins found Nate Trainer for a basket with 5:25 remaining.
The Bulldogs were poised to pull away, but the Spartans fought back. Luke Chapman's 3-pointer began a 13-3 run, as Kyler D'Augustino's steal and assist led to Trey Schaller's fast-break lay-in. Suddenly, Alexander trailed just 53-49 with 2:56 still to play.
"Doesn't surprise us as coaches or really them as kids to see that kind of effort and attitude when it's crunch time," Hill said. "There was no way in the world they were going to stop playing. They were going to fight with everything they have. Very proud of their effort, just disappointed in the finish."
The Spartans continued to push, but the Bulldogs never let Alexander have the basketball in a one-possession game.
Whiting's tip-in through traffic in the lane allowed Athens to go back ahead 55-49.
Kaleb Easley followed up with a score on the other end, but Whiting had another answer. His foul-line jumper with 2:05 remaining allowed Athens to lead 57-51.
"In a pressure situation, yeah, his mindset seemed good," Cozart said of Whiting.
The Spartans had a chance to cut the deficit to one possession but D'Augustino missed with 45 seconds left. Markins made two free throws for a 59-53 edge with 41.3 seconds left.
D'Augustino would scored with 33 seconds left, and Athens would miss the front end of a one-and-one on the other end. That allowed Caleb Terry to scored on a putback to cut the lead to 59-57.
However, only 6.2 seconds were left as Alexander used its final timeout.
Athens was able to inbound the basketball to Markins, who made two pressure free throws with 5.1 on the clock.
That allowed the Bulldogs to lead by four points, and there was nothing the Spartans could do in the closing seconds.
Markins had 14 points, seven rebounds, three assists and three steals.
Cozart cited Markins and Isaiah Butcher (six points, 12 rebounds) as defensive keys. Butcher battled with Terry, Alexander's 6-foot-10 center, all night. The Spartans made just 24 of 69 shots for the game and were held to 34 points through the first three quarters.
"That was probably Isaiah Butcher's best defensive performance of the season," Cozart said. "I thought he was outstanding. I thought he stayed within the game plan."
Trainer added seven points for Athens, including a key fourth-quarter 3-pointer that helped slow Alexander's run.
D'Augustino led Alexander with 17 points, seven rebounds, three steals and two assists. Terry added nine points and 12 rebounds, while Easley and Schaller both scored eight points.
The Spartans will have the weekend off before hosting Wellston on Tuesday. They left Athens High School unaware of J.K. Kearns' status moving forward, but know where they stand in the league race.
Alexander can still do no worse than a share of the top spot if it wins the rest of its TVC-Ohio games.
"We'll go back and take a look at some things on film and get better," Hill said. "We have to play everyone (in the TVC-Ohio) again. We have some tough road games ahead of us. We know that, but obviously, it's our goal and we're still going to pursue this goal to win this league title. Maybe it's just a little bit more difficult now."
The Bulldogs faced that adversity when they lost at Alexander back on Dec. 13. They've been in a must-win mode ever since, and are still very much alive to defend their TVC-Ohio crown after taking Friday's showdown.
"We told our guys at Alexander in that locker room (on Dec. 13) that we still controlled our destiny," Cozart said. "We just have to win out. We have to win out. That's still the message. We have to win every TVC game going forward, because we're not going to rely on somebody else beating Alexander. They're too good. We're going to do our best to take care of business."
Athens 61, Alexander 57
ALEXANDER 57 (11-4, 6-1 TVC-Ohio)
J.K. Kearns 5 0-0 12, Kaleb Easley 3 2-2 8, Trey Schaller 4 0-1 8, Kyler D'Augustino 7 3-4 17, Caleb Terry 4 1-2 9, Luke Chapman 1 0-0 3, Lucas Markins 0 0-2 0; TOTALS 24 6-11 57; 3-point field goals: 3 (Kearns 2, Chapman 1)
ATHENS 61 (11-4, 6-1 TVC-Ohio)
Andrew Stephens 1 0-0 2, Isaiah Butcher 2 1-3 6, Brayden Markins 5 4-4 14, Nate Trainer 3 0-0 7, Brayden Whiting 9 3-5 25, Will Matters 2 0-0 5, Reece Wallace 0 0-0 0, Jack Cornwell 1 0-0 2; TOTALS 23 8-12 61; 3-point field goals: 7 (Whiting 4, Butcher, Trainer, Matters 1 apiece)
TEAM STATISTICS/INDIVIDUAL LEADERS
Field goals — Alexander 24-69 (.347), 3-point field goals 3-22 (.136); Athens 23-52 (.442), 3-point field goals 7-14 (.500); Free throws — Alexander 6-11 (.545), Athens 8-12 (.667); Rebounds — Alexander 39 (Terry 13), Athens 40 (Butcher 12); Assists — Alexander 6 (D'Augustino 2), Athens 10 (Markins 3); Blocks — Alexander 3 (Terry 2), Athens 1; Turnovers — Alexander 7, Athens 14; Steals — Alexander 8 (D'Augustino 3), Athens 5 (Brayden Markins 3); Team fouls — Alexander 11, Athens 12; JV game — Athens 40, Alexander 31