ROCKSPRINGS, Ohio — Eventually, the experience mattered.
South Gallia’s five seniors accounted for all but four points Wednesday night as the second-seeded Rebels survived a major scare from visiting Southern during a 50-48 victory in a Division IV boys basketball sectional final at Larry R. Morrison Gymnasium on the campus of Meigs High School.
The Rebels (18-5) shot over 50 percent from the field in each half, but the hosts still needed a 14-10 run over the final eight minutes of regulation to narrowly secure the program’s sixth sectional championship in school history.
The 10th-seeded Tornadoes (6-18) — who have zero seniors on their roster — successfully used numerous defensive approaches to stay in contention, which ultimately allowed SHS to claim the largest lead by either team at 32-26 with 4:36 remaining in the third period.
SGHS, however, whittled its deficit down to 38-36 headed into the finale, then made 6-of-8 field goal attempts while forcing five Southern turnovers down the stretch. The Rebels led the final 4:36 of regulation, but the Tornadoes had opportunities to pull off the stunning upset all the way to the end.
Trailing 50-48 with 6.8 seconds remaining, the Purple and Gold had a sideout possession on their end of the floor. The ensuing possession resulted in a very decent look at a three-pointer for Dylan Smith in the right corner, but the shot ultimately bounced off the rim and into the air as the horn sounded.
The Rebels — who lost to Southern by a 50-35 count in last year’s D-4 sectional final at MHS — picked up their third consecutive decision over the Tornadoes this winter after posting regular season wins of 65-50 and 67-47 in TVC Hocking play.
As fourth-year SGHS coach Larry Howell noted afterwards, missing out on last year’s district tournament may have provided enough inspiration for his troops to get back to the Ohio University Convocation Center in Athens.
“We knew coming in that Coach Caldwell would have a plan to make our night tough. His kids were well-prepared and they came ready to play from start to finish, so definitely give them credit for that. There was nothing easy about any part of this one,” Howell said. “Southern did a good job against our press and hit shots early on, so we had to rely on our man-to-man defense there in the second half. We were able to make some stops and it also helped spark our offense.
“In the end, I just think that our kids — especially the seniors — remembered losing to Southern in this same sectional final game a year ago. We were really determined to not let that happen again, so that is what makes this upcoming trip to Athens so special. All of the hard work paid off.”
The game was a roller-coaster from the start as Southern established a 6-3 lead three minutes in, but the hosts countered with a 6-3 run to knot things up at nine with 1:06 left. Corey Rhodes nailed a trifecta on a dribble-drive pass from Joseph Ehman with four seconds remaining, giving the Rebels a 12-9 cushion through eight minutes of play.
The Tornadoes hit five of their first seven shots to start the second canto, allowing the guests to make a 13-5 run en route to a 22-17 lead with 3:40 left in the first half.
SGHS followed with four straight points to close to within 22-21 with 2:17 left, but Southern answered with triples by Blake Johnson and Trey Pickens as part of a 6-4 run — allowing Southern to take a 28-25 edge into the break.
The Rebels were 10-of-16 from the field and a perfect 3-of-3 from three-point range in the first half, but the also committed eight costly turnovers over that same span. SHS, conversely, had only four turnovers at halftime and was 11-of-26 from the field overall — including a 6-of-14 effort from behind the arc.
Crenson Rogers scored while completing a small 4-1 run at the 4:36 mark of the third stanza, which allowed the Purple and Gold to take a full two-possession lead at 32-26. SGHS, however, answered with five consecutive points as Landon Hutchinson capped things with an old-fashioned three-point play for a 32-31 contest with 4:01 remaining.
Hutchinson’s successful free throw attempt also proved historic as the four-year senior starter became just the fifth boys basketball player at SGHS to reach 1,000 points for a career, joining Jason Merrick, Josh Waugh, Curt Waugh and Brayden Greer as members of that elusive club.
The Tornadoes answered by thwarting any possible momentum with a 6-3 run over the next three-plus minutes, but Josh Henry hauled in an offensive rebound and converted the putback with four seconds left — making it a 38-36 SHS advantage headed into the finale.
The Rebels tied things at 38 just 17 seconds into the fourth, but Southern made a small 3-2 run to cling to a 41-40 edge with 5:18 remaining. South Gallia freshman Caleb Henry converted a back door layup at the 4:36 mark … and the Rebels led the rest of the way.
Southern trailed by as many as five points (46-41) with 2:14 left and was again down 47-43 with 1:07 remaining, but the guests continued plugging away. Smith hit a trifecta with 51 seconds left to make it a 47-46 contest.
The Tornadoes, trailing 49-48, had possession underneath their own basket with 14.6 seconds left, but the ensuing inbounds pass resulted in a turnover. Joseph Ehman converted the first of two free throws to wrap up the 50-48 score.
Southern missed its first four shots of the fourth quarter and went only 2-of-7 from the field in 12 possessions, with five of the team’s 12 turnovers also coming down the stretch run.
The final result was tough to stomach, but ninth-year SHS coach Jeff Caldwell couldn’t have been more thrilled with what his troops did over the course of their final 32 minutes this year. As he noted, it was the kind of performance that leads to optimism moving forward.
“The only negative that I have about tonight is the scoreboard, and even then I don’t know that I can really call that a negative,” Caldwell said. “We did everything we had to do to be right there at the end against a really good South Gallia squad, and we had an opportunity to win it. It just didn’t work out for us at the end.
“Our kids did a lot of things right out there on the floor and I couldn’t be more proud of their effort or their execution. South Gallia just had a little too much for us tonight, but this is also the kind of game that can make us better in the future.”
South Gallia finished the night 20-of-35 from the field for 57 percent, which included a 4-of-10 effort from behind the arc for 40 percent. The hosts committed 13 turnovers and were also 6-of-11 at the free throw line for 55 percent.
Landon Hutchinson had at least four points in each quarter and led the Rebels with a game-high 19 points. The senior spoke afterwards about his accomplishment and the night in general.
“I’ve really enjoyed my four years at South Gallia, especially playing for Coach Howell and all the guys I’ve called teammates over that time,” Hutchinson said. “If it wasn’t for any of those people, I wouldn’t have been to able to reach a milestone like this. The hard work paid off in a sense, but I’m happier that this comes in a hard-fought win that sends us to the Convo.”
Ehman was next with 10 points and a team-best eight rebounds, while Darren Drenner and Kane Hutchinson respectively chipped in nine and five markers to the winning cause. Rhodes was next with three points, while the Josh Henry and Caleb Henry rounded things out with two points apiece.
The Rebels outrebounded SHS by a small 18-16 overall margin, including a slim 6-5 edge on the offensive glass. The Tornadoes did not have an offensive rebound in the second half.
Southern made 18-of-40 shot attempts for 45 percent, including a 7-of-18 effort from three-point range for 39 percent. The Purple and Gold also went 5-of-6 at the charity stripe for 83 percent.
Smith paced SHS with 18 points, followed by Blake Johnson with 15 points and Rogers with eight markers. Trey Pickens and Jaylen Blanks respectively wrapped up the Southern tally with five and two points.
Both Pickens and Tylar Blevins led the Tornadoes with four rebounds apiece.
South Gallia advances the D-4 district semifinals at the OU Convocation Center on Tuesday, where the Rebels will face sixth-seeded Western at 8 p.m. The Indians defeated third-seeded Portsmouth Notre Dame at Northwest High School Wednesday night by a 54-44 margin.
SGHS has appeared in the district final in each of its last two trips to the Convo in 2012 and 2014. The Rebels also won sectional titles in 2005, 2006 and 2011.
Bryan Walters can be reached at 740-446-2342, ext. 2101.