DAYTON — Anna got little resistance in its three sectional tournament games but trailed by four points at halftime of a Division III district final on Sunday at UD Arena.
The first half turned out to be a good refresher for the Rockets on playing a fast-paced opponent — and once reminded, they took control.
Anna overcame the halftime deficit and beat Clark Montessori 68-59 to earn the program’s first district championship since 2010.
“We definitely needed a test, because every game from here on out is going to get harder and harder,” Anna junior guard Bart Bixler said. “I think that’s a great test to prepare us for the rest of the way.”
Anna clamped down on defense in the second half and held the Cougars scoreless for two long stretches. The Rockets used an 8-0 run in the third quarter to take a 43-40 lead, then used a 12-0 run in the fourth quarter to take a 61-48 lead.
“We never got down at halftime; we just needed to figure out what adjustments we needed to make,” Anna coach Nate Barhorst said. “It was obvious we needed to get the ball inside more, and it was obvious we needed to get back in transition.”
The Cougars scored four baskets off turnovers and had 19 fast-break points in the first half but scored just one basket off turnovers and had 13 fast-break points in the second half (most of which came in the final minutes).
Bixler said a defensive switch helped slow Clark Montessori. Junior guard Riley Huelskamp guarded Clark Montessori’s D’Shawnti Hawkins in the second half while Bixler guarded Sean Ealy. Hawkins led Clark Montessori with 29 points while Ealy scored 12.
“I had been sick the whole week and I didn’t have all my legs,” Bixler said. “(Saturday) was my first day of practice the whole week. That switch did work, and we stuck with that the rest of the half.”
Bixler led Anna with 23 points, while senior 6-foot-5 forward Griffin Doseck scored 21 points and had 13 rebounds. He stepped up his presence on the defensive post in the second half and grabbed 11 of his rebounds then.
“They didn’t have an answer for him down low,” Barhorst said of Doseck. “They tried to double him, and Griffin would find a guy cutting to the hole.”
Anna owned a 44-23 rebounding advantage for the game, including a 25-12 advantage in the second half. Barhorst said the ability to dominate the boards and prevent second-chance looks was also critical to the team’s improved defensive performance in the second half.
“That was our number one key, keep them out of our paint and keep them out of our gut,” Barhorst said. “They were forced to shoot shots from outside, and we didn’t think they were the greatest shooting team.”
Bixler said the win is especially cherished by the team’s seniors after a district final loss last season.
“It means everything to them, which makes it even more to us,” Bixler said. “We have great leaders on our team, pushing us and pushing us.
“This is just one team, with no selfishness at all. That’s what I love about it.”
The Rockets lost to Purcell Marian by 13 points in a district final last year.
“Most of the offseason was talking about how we wanted to get over the hump and get back here to UD and prove that we can be a great team,” Barhorst said. “These guys developed such a great chemistry in the offseason and in preseason. In regular season, you could just see it coming together.
“I just love those kids to death, because the last few weeks, we’ve grown even closer together.”
Anna (24-2) advances to face Dayton Stivers in a Div. III regional semifinal on at 8 p.m. on Wednesday at Trent Arena in Kettering. Stivers beat defending state champion Deer Park 76-62 in a district final on Sunday at UD Arena.
“They’re pretty athletic,” Bixler said. “We’re going to have to come to play if we want to beat them.”
Stivers (20-4) tied Thurgood Marshall this season for its first Dayton City League since 1953.
“They looked very fast today and very fluid,” Barhorst said. “We’re going to have get ready for a very athletic team, and you’re going to see the same style of play. …We’re going to have our hands full again with their personnel.”
Playing fast is what Anna has excelled at under Barhorst’s tenure. The team’s run-and-gun style has reached new heights this season with a Shelby County Athletic League title and a district title.
Barhorst was pleased to see the team excel against a fast-pace opponent in Clark Montessori
“I thought we could stay with (Clark Montessori) if we got some pressure,” Barhorst said. “We’ve got two or three guys that can stay with them all game, and the rest of our guys know their limitations and know what to do to get a couple of steps here and there.
“(Clark Montessori) got kind of rattled and had some turnovers here and there, and that was good to see our guards get in their crawl.”
The district title is the first in Barhorst’s eight-year tenure. Anna lost in district finals in 2014 and 2018.
“We’re finally establishing some success, and hopefully that success breeds success in getting kids interested in developing,” Barhorst said. “We’ve been really stressing developing and getting kids in the gym and refining everything in the program.”
Clark Montessori led 36-32 at halftime and took a 40-35 lead after a basket by Brazeil Moore with 6:13 left in the third.
The Cougars struggled to find any shots against Anna’s full-court, man-to-man defense over the next several minutes while the Rockets found a groove.
After Huelskamp and Bixler scored baskets, Doseck made a basket to put Anna ahead and followed with a pair of free throws to increase the lead to 43-40 with three minutes left.
Hawkins made a basket with 1:32 left to break the long scoreless streak for Clark Montessori, but Doseck hit a pair of free throws with 37 seconds left to extend the lead back to three points at the end of the third quarter at 47-44.
Hawkins hit a basket to pull the Cougars within 49-48 with 6:21 left in the fourth. The squad then suffered another long scoreless streak, as several point-blank shots didn’t fall and Anna scooped up most of the rebounds.
Carter Elliott hit a basket with 5:44 left, then Isaac Lininger made a 3 from the right wing with 4:24 left to push the lead to 54-48. Anna rattled off six more points to push its lead to 61-48 with 2:20 left before Hawkins made a 3 to break the over four-minute scoreless stretch for the Cougars.
Hawkins hit a 3 with 1:23 left to bring Clark Montessori within 63-57, but Anna didn’t let it get any closer. The Rockets made 5-of-10 free throw attempts down the stretch to help seal the win.
Foul shots were a big advantage to Anna all night. The Rockets made 22-of-33 attempts overall while the Cougars made 3-of-4. Clark Montessori was charged with 22 fouls compared to six by Anna.
Huelskamp finished with 12 points for Anna, while Lininger finished with six points and 11 rebounds. The Rockets shot 22 for 48 (45.8 percent) from the field while the Cougars shot 26 for 61 (42.6 percent).
Anna jumped out to a 9-4 lead in the first three minutes thanks in part to four early points from Bixler. Clark Montessori responded with a 10-4 run, though, which Ealy capped off with a basket with 2:25 left to put the Cougars ahead 14-13. There were three more lead changes in the quarter, as Doseck hit a basket with 31 seconds left to put Anna ahead 17-16.
Clark Montessori opened the second quarter on a 15-8 run to take a 31-25 lead with 5:04 left, but Anna scored the next five to pull within 31-30. After Hawkins split a pair of free throws, Doseck scored on a drive with 1:26 left to tie it 32-32.
Hawkins made a basket with about a minute left, then Myles Faison laid a shot off the glass after a bullet pass from Hawkins with three seconds left to put the Cougars ahead 36-32 at halftime.
Clark Montessori finishes 15-9. The Cougars had won eight consecutive games entering Sunday’s district final.
“They’re a tough team,” Barhorst said. “That’s a team that down the stretch of the season was getting pretty dangerous.”