At one point in the first half of Tuesday’s home opener against New Lexington, Mickey Cozart — Athens head boys basketball coach — turned and sideswiped his clipboard with an authoritative right foot.
The board clattered to the floor. The dry-erase pen attached to it rolled underneath the scorer’s table. During the next time out, Cozart was scrambling to find where the pen had disappeared to.
“The guy behind our bench had fun with that one,” Cozart said, with a laugh, afterward.
And so it was for Cozart during the Bulldogs’ 51-37 win over the Panthers at McAfee Gymnasium. There was plenty that may have gotten underneath Cozart’s skin during the game, but there was little to cause lasting consternation afterward.
“We’re got to figure out a good balance, the right balance,” Cozart said, trying to describe how Athens (2-0) is searching out ways to push pace and tempo while still adhering to good shot-selection and defensive principles.
Athens found enough of a balance to KO the Panthers (1-1), even if there were some less-than-pleasing moments along the way. The Bulldogs trailed just once, at 4-3 with three minutes left in the first quarter, and never saw the second-half lead dip into single-possession range before putting it away in the fourth.
Cozart knew replacing four multi-year starters this winter was going to lead to some interesting nights, especially early in the season, and the Bulldogs had enough ebbs and flows on Tuesday to remind him that Athens is a work in progress.
“We’re having a problem playing a high rate of speed and knowing what’s the good shot and what’s the bad shot,” the coach explained.
The same could be said of the defensive end. Cozart wants to play more man-to-man defense this season, but Athens had more success with the 2-3 zone it employed most of the time last year against New Lex.
“We want to play a ton of man,” Cozart said. “Tonight..I had a feeling to go in it. Sometimes you get lucky with that.
“Tonight I got lucky and it made us look good.”
New Lex got a team-high 14 points and six rebounds from Logyn Ratliff, but never got on track offensively. The Panthers shot just 28.9 percent overall and that percentage plummeted from 3-point range (3 of 18, 16.7 percent).
“We did a real good job flying around and getting in passing lanes and making them shoot tough, quick and longer 3-point shots,” Cozart said.
And while there may have been some groan-inducing moments from the Bulldogs, and the game was too close for too long for Cozart’s liking, there was plenty of good stuff too from Athens.
Junior wing Brayden Whiting had a game-high 19 points on just 12 shots, and added six rebounds with four assists. With Athens leading 34-28 to start the fourth, Whiting helped put it away with a feed to the foul line for a jumper from Will Matters, and then hit a right-side 3-pointer. Joey Moore’s put-back bucket made it a 7-0 run to start the quarter for Athens for a 41-28 lead. The margin didn’t drop below 11 the rest of the way.
“(Whiting) hit a couple daggers down the stretch of that thing,” Cozart said.
Senior forward Isaiah Butcher added nine points, and was a steady force inside with 10 rebounds. Senior guard Brayden Markins added seven points. Matters led a five-player bench contingent with six points.
The bottom line was Athens controlled the game defensively, and found enough offensive spurts to post a relatively easy win at home.
It was not picture-perfect, but it was perfectly suitable for a team with a lot of new contributors in new roles.
“We’re fortunate to be 2-0. We’re still doing a lot of stuff that’s giving me gray hair. We’re making some bad decisions,” Cozart said. “But we’re going to get better.”
Athens opens up Tri-Valley Conference Ohio Division play next Tuesday, back at McAfee, with Nelsonville-York.
Athens 51, New Lex 37
New Lex 7 12 9 9 — 37
Athens 10 15 9 17 — 51
NEW LEX (1-1) 37
Brady Hanson 2 0-0 4, Logyn Ratliff 4 5-5 14, Dylan Erwin 2 1-3 7, Will Stenson 2 0-0 4, Hunter Kellogg 0 0-0 0, Luke Ratliff 1 0-0 2, Trey Kennedy 0 1-2 1, Braden Agriesti 2 1-2 5; TOTALS 13 8-12 37; 3-point goals — Three (Erwin 2, L. Ratliff 1)
ATHENS (2-0) 51
Andrew Stephens 0 1-3 1, Isaiah Butcher 3 3-4 9, Brayden Markins 2 2-2 7, Nate Trainer 2 0-0 5, Reece Wallace 1 0-0 2, Brayden Whiting 7 2-2 19, Jack Cornwell 0 0-0 0, Joey Moore 1 0-0 2, Will Matters 2 2-2 6, Jake Sayers 0 0-2 0; TOTALS 18 10-15 51; 3-point goals — Five (Whiting 3, Markins 1, Trainer 1).
TEAM STATISTICS/INDIVIDUAL LEADERS
Field goals — New Lex 13-45 (.289), 3-point goals 3-18 (.167); Athens 18-43 (.419), 3-point goals 5-12 (.417); Free throws — New Lex 8-12 (.667); Athens 10-15 (.667); Rebounds — New Lex 20 (L. Ratliff 6), Athens 39 (Butcher 10); Assists — New Lex 7, Athens 12 (Whiting 4); Steals — New Lex 6, Athens 4; Turnovers — New Lex 8, Athens 14; Personal fouls — New Lex 14, Athens 13; Technical fouls — None; JV Score — Athens 46, New Lex 42.