Van Wert’s Connor Holliday drives baseline as a pair of Elida defenders converge during the first half of Van Wert’s 43-41 loss on Friday night. Holliday led the Cougars with a dozen points, all of them coming after halftime. (Times Bulletin/Tina Eley)
By John Parent
Times Bulletin Sports Editor
VAN WERT — The Elida Bulldogs made only three shots in the fourth quarter on Friday night, in their Western Buckeye League battle at Van Wert, but those three shots were all they needed to hold off the Cougars. Elida won the game 43-41.
A six-way tie atop the WBL included both the Cougars and Dawgs, who entered play on Friday at 2-1 in the league. Elida moved to 10-2 overall with the victory while Van Wert fell to 4-6.
Despite being on the wrong end of a 15-0 second-quarter run, Van Wert clawed their way back from a 24-12 halftime deficit to tie the game in the final period.
That’s when sophomore Marquevious Wilson drained a three-pointer from the top of the arc to put Elida up 37-34 with 4:35 to go.
That shot took a bit of the pressure off the Bulldogs, who had appeared frustrated by the scrappy Cougar defense, especially their effort on senior Dakota Mathias, who came in averaging 27 points per game.
After an ice-cold first half, however, Van Wert had come too far to be daunted and junior Connor Holliday got into the lane to bring Van Wert back within one. Though Mathias personally turned away five Cougar shots in the game, Van Wert went back inside on their next possession and senior Matt Bidlack dropped in a tough basket to give Van Wert the lead at 38-38. It was the Cougars first advantage since a 10-9 score at the end of the first quarter.
The Cougars expanded to their largest lead when Holliday drive the lane again to make it 40-37 with 2:10 to play in the game.
“I thought Holliday did a nice job of getting to the basket,” said Elida head coach Denny Thompson. “You had a team (in the fourth quarter) that had a really good feel that they’re back in it and now game’s on.”
Once again, the Bulldogs had to be feeling the heat of a possible loss in a game they had appeared to have in the bag. Once again they were bailed out by a clutch three, this one by their Purdue-bound senior, Mathias.
With Van Wert’s Michael Smelser in his face, as Cougars defenders were all evening long, Mathias created just enough space to elevate from the left corner and drain a fade-away three that knotted the score. It was Mathias’ fifth three-pointer of the night.
With 1:09 to play, a Cougar miss was rebounded by Drew Myers, who had the ball slapped away by Elida’s Wilson inside. The scramble ensued and four players took to the floor to battle for the loose ball. Though a jump ball seemed the clear call, a timeout was awarded to Elida, giving them possession.
Elida didn’t waste the gift opportunity.
Senior guard Max Stambaugh, who the Cougars had been leaving open throughout the second half, stepped up from the right wing and rattled home a three-ball that gave Elida a lead they wouldn’t surrender.
“Max is very capable. In practice, he makes those all the time, but he’s not a confident shooter,” added Thompson. “The time before, he was wide open and didn’t shoot it and I said ‘Max, if you don’t shoot it, I’m gonna take you out (of the game).’”
“There really wasn’t one fiber in my body that thought it was going in. It looked like it was wide left.”
But go in, it did and, as Van Wert coach Mark Bagley noted, it took a lot of guts to even attempt that shot, let alone knock it down.
“It takes a lot of guts to step up and shoot that,” said Bagley. “We were (daring him to shoot). Our fifth man was the help man inside and we were doing some different things to double Dakota. Hats off to Max. I told him right in the middle of the game, at the end there, I said ‘Max, that was a great shot,’ and it was.”
“At that point, it was all I could do, is give the kid credit.”
The Cougars had one final chance to force overtime.
After Mathias missed the front-end of a one-and-one, Van Wert’s Smelser was fouled going to the basket. Trailing by two with 1.0 second on the clock, Smelser missed the first free throw. An intentional miss of the second was swatted away by Elida and the Bulldogs escaped with the win.
The Cougars fell behind in the first quarter, thanks to some missed hots from close range. Back-to-back hoops by Bidlack, the latter a baseline jumper at the horn, gave the Cougars a 10-9 lead after one.
In the second, Mathias got rolling while the Van Wertt attack went dry. The Cougars missed their first 11 shots of the period while Elida rattled off 15 consecutive points, nine of which came on Mathias threes. Bidlack’s 16-footer finally broke the Elida run.
In the third, it was all Van Wert, as Kyle Keber got the half started with a three from the top of the arc, then scored on a drive to the hoop, then added another triple. His surge sparked a 19-9 third period advantage for the Cougars that pulled them within a deuce at the end of three.
Keber also had the bulk of the responsibility of guarding Mathias.
“From the start of the pre-season, Kyle Keber was our leader from Day One,” Bagley remarked. “Kyle and I sat down and talked and he took over this team leadership-wise. He was just outstanding tonight. He did everything we asked. He played a great game on Dakota, I think at times (Keber) frustrated him, and then he hot some shots for us that we needed desperately.”
“Kyle has bought in, and all of our guys have bought in. We just have to win one of these, and I keep on saying that. It’s tough,” Bagley added.
Score by quarters
Elida 9 15 9 10- 43
Van Wert 10 2 19 10- 41
Stambaugh 7, Wilson 5, Allemeier 0, Gray 6, Mathias 19, Weitz 2, Etzler 2
Van Wert (41)
Smelser 0, K. Keber 10, Bidlack 8, Holliday 12, Myers 8, Stoller 3, Moreland 0, N. Keber 0
JV score: Van Wert 46, Elida 26