MINFORD — Most Ohio high school boys basketball observers, objectively and subjectively alike, believe that the New Boston Tigers are indeed one of the best Division IV teams in the entire state.
Well, in Southeastern Ohio anyway, their checklist against Division III schools isn’t too shabby either.
In fact, following Tuesday night’s non-league tilt at Minford, the Tigers completed the perfect season sweep against their Division III competition.
That’s because New Boston, trailing by a point apiece after the opening two quarters, outscored the host Minford Falcons 18-8 in the third frame —and never trailed for the final 13 minutes en route to capturing a critical 61-50 victory inside an electric Falcons’ Nest.
But, this was no ordinary run-of-the-mill Tiger triumph.
For starters, it was New Boston’s 20th regular-season victory, which hasn’t been accomplished since the legendary 1960 squad advanced all the way to the state tournament.
The Tigers — once again the second-ranked team in the sixth weekly Associated Press Ohio high school boys basketball Division IV poll — raised their stellar record to 20-1, with now seven wins in exactly seven tries against Division III programs.
New Boston —already the outright Southern Ohio Conference Division I champions for the first time since the 1970-71 campaign — also spoiled Senior Night for the Falcons, which fell to 10-9.
The Tigers’ only loss occurred at Peebles (52-46) on Jan. 4 — as the 18-2 Indians are the fifth-ranked Division IV club, and riding a 16-game winning streak in the process.
New Boston believes it IS the best team of the Buckeye State’s smallest schools, and Adam Cox —the third-year Tiger head coach — said his charges simply keep checking boxes of goals they aim to obtain.
Cox continued in his postgame media interview on Tuesday, saying his Tigers want to finish as the 2020 AP Poll champions for Division IV.
He knew what a victory over Minford — a bigger SOC II school — meant, and his Tigers treated the matchup as such.
In fact, New Boston approached the second half as if it were a Southeast District tournament tilt at the Ohio University Convocation Center.
Truth be told, the Falcons’ Nest felt an amped-up intense atmosphere.
“It was an emotional game and we sure felt like we had something to prove here tonight,” said Cox. “To prove to anybody out there that doubted us on how good we were, we wanted to show everybody. We felt like we needed to win, because you know what, we want to be the number-one AP team in the state (in Division IV).”
Oh, by the way, there is one final AP poll, which will be released on Monday.
But, according to Cox, the Tigers’ tournament trail “started tonight”.
“I told my kids for two straight days that we’re practicing for Minford like it’s our first-round tournament game. I told them in every timeout tonight that ‘this is the Convo (Ohio University Convocation Center) with four minutes to go. We’re up four. Take care of the ball and make your free throws and layups only’. The kids responded in the second half and they’ve been here before,” he said. “I’m very proud of my kids. That was an SOC II team that is very good that we just played.”
And Minford made the Tigers work for the win, erasing a pair of first-half deficits to lead 13-12 following the first quarter and 24-23 at halftime.
Then, Nathan McCormick —one of the Falcons’ three seniors —splashed a three-pointer to begin the third quarter and give the Falcons their largest lead (27-23).
But New Boston’s ball pressure on the Falcons forcing 17 steals, and the Tigers taking advantage of extra opportunities on the boards, began to turn the tide.
The Tigers stopped shooting — and missing — three-pointers, and instead attacked the basket by either making steals and runout layups or just going right to the rim in the half-court set.
New Boston, in fact, didn’t make a single solitary trifecta.
“We shot the ball better (in the second half), but we didn’t shoot the ball outside,” said Cox. “I told them no threes. Only threes we get are on dribble-drive kickouts. No more shooting threes on just passing the ball around on that zone and being lackluster. We shot five straight threes up eight (23-15), and went into that locker-room down one (24-23). Did you think we were going to come out shooting threes in the second half? Absolutely not.”
Tanner Voiers was guilty of doing that, as his back-to-back baskets including the second off a steal gave New Boston back the lead for good at 31-29.
The Tigers, following the Falcons’ Elijah Vogelsong-Lewis landing a pair of free throws at the 6:09 mark, tallied a dozen unanswered points for a 39-29 advantage by the 1:50 juncture of the third.
Minford’s Drew Skaggs sank a three-pointer just 35 seconds later, but the Tigers’ Jerome McKinley made it 41-32 on a rebound putback with seven seconds left.
Minford coach Josh Shoemaker, in his postgame media interview, emphasized — time and again —a lack of rebounding and 20 turnovers.
Shoemaker said it was the second consecutive outing —with Wheelersburg before that — in which his Falcons failed to rebound well.
“On the first two possessions, we gave up three offensive rebounds. That set tone for the whole game,” he said. “Our whole defensive gameplan was to do a better job rebounding. That part of the game is all about mental toughness and getting after it. But we didn’t have anybody that wanted to rebound the basketball tonight or against Wheelersburg. We’re shooting ourselves in the foot because we don’t rebound the basketball nor do we take care of the basketball. We had 20 turnovers, and I will give all credit to New Boston and their pressure for that, but we have to take better care of the ball.”
Cox said his Tigers made the necessary halftime adjustments, which turned out to be all the right moves.
“The boys at halftime were great. They understand adjustments and that when I talk, they listen,” he said. “I told them that we gave them three-point shots by leaving our guys and not rotating. I said to trust on-ball defense, keep them out of the paint, defense around the three-point line has to stay, and switch on all screens and make them dribble. We played man-to-man the whole first half and we showed some zone press in the second. We left them out to dry, went on a 12-0 run, and were able to get our wheels going and our feet under us. This was a tournament-style game. We’ll be down at halftime in this tournament, and we have to make adjustments to win.”
And, make free throws too.
Kyle Sexton, coming off a career-high 36 points against Western on Saturday night by scoring half of that total Tuesday, sank 8-of-9 free throws in addition to his five field goals — including 5-of-6 in the fourth quarter.
The Tigers were in the bonus situation for the final six minutes and seven seconds, as Grady Jackson —who tied Voiers with 14 points and Sexton with five field goals — canned 4-of-4 in the fourth.
Sexton missed just once —his last attempt —as the Falcons forged a comeback by reducing an 11-point (43-32) deficit down to 54-50 with only a minute remaining on two McCormick foul shots.
The Falcons fouled New Boston senior Malachi Potts on the ensuing possession, and Potts missed both of the double-bonus with 57 seconds left, but Minford missed a golden opportunity at a defensive rebound —and Chase Clark secured a massive offensive carom to put the Tigers back at the stripe.
“That’s the one that broke our backs. No excuse for giving up that offensive rebound there. A free-throw offensive rebound that wasn’t a bad miss, we just didn’t get the ball,” said Shoemaker. “Credit to Clark for going and getting it, but I am very disappointed in our effort on the rebounds, because it’s absolutely what’s beaten us the last two games. We’re playing solid defense, holding teams to a good field-goal defensive percentage, but if we don’t rebound, everything else we do is useless. We’re our own worst enemy.”
Clark connected on both to make it 56-50, as the Tigers finished off the victory with a pair of transition baskets —the first by Jackson and the second by Voiers.
McKinley then split a pair of free throws for the 61-50 final, which also tied for the Tigers’ largest lead.
For the game, New Boston was 19-of-24 from the line —along with its 21 two-point goals.
Voiers had a half-dozen, while Sexton and Jackson followed with five —and Clark chipped in three (six points).
McKinley (four points), De’Von Jones (three points) and Potts (two points) posted one basket apiece, while Sexton ripped down 16 rebounds —followed by seven apiece from McKinley, Jones and Clark.
Three Falcons finished in double figures, paced by 14 from Trenton Zimmerman and 13 from McCormick, while Skaggs scored 11.
Zimmerman and McCormick made two treys apiece, as the Falcons finished with seven triples —and meshed 9-of-11 free throws.
The first half featured a game of runs, with New Boston leading 10-3 and 23-15 — as Minford surged back both times to lead 13-12 and 24-23.
In both quarters, the 10-2 first-quarter spree and the nine unanswered ending the second covered a span of 3:35.
McCormick notched his first three followed by one from Vogelsong-Lewis to end the first frame, before freshman Adam Crank’s corner pocket three-ball beat the first-half buzzer to lift the Falcons in front.
But for Minford, as NewFound Glory once sang, it was all downhill from here.
It was Senior Night for McCormick, Hunter Davis and Andy Crank.
“I hate it for our three seniors, who have been great kids with great attitudes and play their hearts out,” said Shoemaker. “This was a big game, and I really thought we were going to play some good basketball. You always want to give your seniors a victory on Senior Night, and unfortunately we didn’t do that.”
In the other locker-room — on the other hand — it was one of celebration, for the Tigers’ 2020 triumph tally officially turned 20.
“Twenty wins. We just went nuts in there (locker-room). That was one of our team goals. Another item to check off the bucket list. Just a big game and our kids never stopped playing their butts off. Hats off to our rotation. I don’t care who scores the points. Our rotation is all about doing your job and playing your role and being a part of one heartbeat. If you do your job on our team, we win,” said Cox. “I couldn’t be more proud these guys.”