DAYTON — Versailles boys basketball coach Travis Swank said the Midwest Athletic Conference is largely thought of a football conference around the state — a likely side effect of conference teams having won a combined 33 state titles.
But anyone questioning the strength of the MAC’s hardwood abilities will have a harder time after what the Tigers pulled off on Sunday.
Versailles struggled for much of regular season, but the Tigers became the second Division III MAC team of the weekend to earn a district title. The Tigers used an early 13-point lead to power a 47-44 victory over Cincinnati Reading in a D-III district final at UD Arena.
“Our kids are battle-tested,” Swank said. “I really like our schedule; we’ve played against good opponents all year. I think how good our conference is goes a long way towards a tournament run. …Our league I would say is as good top-to-bottom as any around. That physicality and that type of style gets you ready for this type of atmosphere.”
The Tigers advance to face Cincinnati Purcell Marian in a regional semifinal at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday at Trent Arena in Kettering. Purcell Marian (22-4) beat National Trail by 20 points in a district final on Sunday in Dayton.
Versailles (15-10) finished in sixth place in the 10-team MAC but is one of the conference’s last three teams still playing. Coldwater (17-9) won a Div. III district title on Saturday and MAC champion St. Henry (22-3) won a Div. IV district title on Friday.
It’s Versailles second district title since 2017 and third since 2013.
Unlike the other recent ones, few were predicting the Tigers would advance so far in the tournament during the season.
Versailles lost five seniors to graduation off last year’s 21-5 team, including its top two scorers in current Ohio State freshman Justin Ahrens and his brother A.J. Ahrens. The duo averaged nearly a combined 36 points per game.
“This (district title) really means a lot, because I don’t think a whole lot of people believed we were going to make it this far,” Versailles senior forward Evan Hiestand said. “They doubted us, but we played as a team, came together and got it done.”
Hiestand, a 6-2 forward, scored 12 points and had eight rebounds and three blocks. He and junior guard Michael Stammen are the only two players who saw significant playing time last year. Stammen led Versailles with 14 points and had three assists.
The Tigers returned only two players with much varsity experience and struggled to a 3-4 start this season. After winning five in a row, Versailles hit another rough patch and dropped six of nine games late in the season against the likes of St. Henry, Anna and Vandalia-Butler.
Versailles won its final regular-season game at Greenville by 20 points, then posted close tournament wins over Twin Valley South and Brookville to advance to Sunday’s district final.
“It shows just a lot of grit and determination,” Swank said of the postseason run. “That’s what our kids have. We’ve been playing with a chip on our shoulders all year because I think a lot of people doubted us from the get-go, losing five good seniors. …Our guys didn’t believe that, and they just kept getting better each game.”
Versailles 6-foot-6 junior forward Austin Toner led Versailles with nine rebounds, scored seven points and had three blocks.
Toner had two big offensive rebounds in the final minute of the third quarter, the first of which he passed off to Evan Hiestand for a layup and the second of which he put back at the buzzer to give Versailles a 39-35 lead.
“He played really tough today,” Swank said. “We told him coming into the game that he was going to have to be a glass eater, and he controlled the boards and affected a lot of shots down underneath. He made it tough around the rim because he bothered a lot of their smaller (guards) on drives.”
Reading (18-7) finished second in the Cincinnati Hills League and was the No. 3 seed in the 20-team Cincinnati Div. III sectional.
Though the Blue Devils forced 18 turnovers, Versailles expertly worked the ball for open shots. The Tigers shot 17 for 29 (58.6 percent) compared to 16 for 45 (35.6 percent) by Reading. The Tigers also had a 28-17 rebounding advantage.
“We talked that we’re not the prettiest girl at the ball, but we’re still at the dance, and that’s what matters,” Swank said. “Our stats really don’t back it up because we didn’t shoot very well from the free-throw line (11 for 19) and turned the ball over a lot, but we shot at a very good percent and just did enough. Our defense really comes to play at tournament time, and that’s what we’re relying on right now.”
Versailles scored the game’s first 13 points, but Reading ended the half on a 12-3 run to pull within 22-19.
Don’nek Patterson hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key to tie it 33-33 with 2:46 left in the third quarter, but Hiestand and Toner’s buckets put the Tigers ahead by four heading into the fourth.
Brandon Ross hit a pair of free throws and followed with a basket to tie it 39-39 with 6:54 left in the fourth, then he hit a jumper from just inside the left wing with 6:18 left to give the Blue Devils their first lead of the game.
Dakoda Naftzger made a basket with 4:44 left to tie it, then Hiestand took a bounce pass from Stammen along the left baseline, jumped and laid a shot off the backboard with 3:21 left to put Versailles ahead 45-41.
AJ Brown split a pair of free throws to make it a three-point game with 2:50 left, and Reading came up without a point on its next two offensive possessions.
After Michael Stammen missed a 1-and-1 opportunity with just over a minute left, Reading had a shot in the paint blocked by Hiestand, but he fell out-of-bounds after coming down with the ball.
Versailles fouled Ross shortly after the inbounds pass, and he made two free throws to bring Reading within 45-44. The Blue Devils fouled Stammen with 21 seconds left, and he made two foul shots to increase the lead to three points.
Reading worked for a 3-point shot on its final possession, but Ross stepped out-of bounds with two seconds left. Versailles got the ball inbounds and held on to win.
“We wanted to make sure we took away the 3,” Swank said of Reading’s final possession. “We didn’t want to get beat by a 3, so we played everybody tight. …We smothered them there. We’ve been pretty good defending the 3 all year; that’s been our team philosophy. We want to make people who aren’t drivers drive, and we did that well (today).”
Ross, who is one of Reading’s nine seniors, led the team with 23 points.
Toner scored back-to-back baskets to put Versailles ahead 11-0 with 4:15 left in the first quarter, then Hiestand capped off the big early run with a basket with 3:38 left to put Versailles ahead by 13 points.
“It’s hard to keep that momentum going,” Swank said. “No one wants their season to end. In a district championship, it’s always a game of runs.”
Reading responded with a run.
The Blue Devils pulled within 16-5 by the end of the first quarter, but Hiestand scored to put the Tigers ahead 19-7 with 6:29 left in the second.
The Blue Devils dominated the rest of the quarter. Ross made a basket, then AJ Brown scored on a breakaway dunk with 3:16 left to cut the lead to 19-13. Stammen made a layup to put Versailles ahead 22-16, but Ross hit a 3 at the top of the key at the buzzer to make it a three-point game at halftime.