SIDNEY — Sidney lost four starters and the program’s all-time leading scorer off of last year’s 20-win campaign but already looks to again be a contender for a league championship.
The Yellow Jackets beat previously undefeated Stebbins 60-56 in an early-season Miami Valley League showdown on Tuesday to improve to 3-0 overall and 3-0 in conference play. They led by as many as 13 in the second half before Stebbins rallied late and scored five points in the final 30 seconds to cut down the final gap.
“Stebbins is tough,” Sidney coach John Willoughby said. “They get after it, they’re quick with their hands, they get every loose ball and they battle on the boards. We needed something like this to get our guys to focus. We needed this type of game.”
It was a stellar performance against an upstart program considering few who took the court for Sidney on Tuesday had much playing time last year. The Yellow Jackets shot 39 percent (23 for 59) from the field but got 48 rebounds and had 13 steals and six blocked shots.
Though the team is dominated by newcomers and bench players from last year’s squad, the lone returning starter led the team in scoring. Darren Taborn, a senior guard, scored 17 points and also had two steals and four rebounds. He’s averaged a team-best 17.3 points through the first four games.
“He’s playing in about seventh gear right now, and we need to get him back to about fourth gear,” Willoughby, who picked up his 400th career win last Friday, said with a laugh. “We need to have Darren in there. He’s a great defender and tough as all get out. In tough situations late in games, his mental toughness is going to take over.”
Taborn’s younger brother Devin Taborn added 15 points, nine of which came in the first half to help the squad amass a 30-19 halftime lead. Taborn, a sophomore guard, is averaging 14 points per game.
Taborn is back after tearing the ACL in his left knee after the fourth game last season. He played football last fall and developed into one of the team’s best linebackers, and Willoughby said he gained confidence playing on his knee through that season.
Senior guard Dominick Durr, senior forward Lathan Jones, junior guard Camden Vordemark and sophomore forward Jaden Swiger have also already scored in double figures in at least one game this season. That doesn’t include senior guard Trey Werntz, who finished with eight points on Tuesday and scored nine in a win over Piqua last Friday.
The balanced scoring is a sign of the team’s depth. Nine of the team’s ten players have seen significant playing time in each game.
“There’s not much fall off, if any,” Willoughby said. “We were putting five in at a time in scrimmages. We’re not going to do that in regular season, but with the players that we have, they’re going to get their chances, and if they play the right way, their minutes are extended. If they don’t, someone else is back in.
“That’s an advantage for us, and hopefully that keeps everybody focused in on what they’re supposed to give to the team.”
After boosting its lead to 13 points in the third quarter, Sidney went cold shooting-wise for a long period in the third quarter, during which time the Indians went on an 11-2 run to pull within 42-39 heading into the fourth quarter.
But the Yellow Jackets quickly extended the lead, thanks in part to a pair of blocks by junior forward Avante Martin, which both led to baskets. Martin scored a basket with 4:55 left to boost the lead to 48-43 and later hit a pair of free throws to put the squad ahead 55-45. Sidney led by about 10 the rest of the way until Stebbins’ late baskets narrowed the final gap.
Martin had nine rebounds and a team-best four blocks in the win. He’s a 6-2 junior forward and is one of three players the team is looking to for production in the post after the graduation of Ratez Roberts, who averaged 9.8 points, 4.3 blocks and 9.4 rebounds per game last year.
“It’s nice to know Avante can play against tough competition like this,” Willoughby said. “They didn’t back down from him tonight, and he didn’t back down from them. We like those type of players, those tough players. Avante is growing and getting to that.”
Though Sidney is without its all-time leading scorer Andre Gordon, who has already become a starting guard at Texas A&M, Roberts’ graduation is the bigger hole the team is trying to fill. That’s mostly due to the great number and experience of the team’s guards compared to its post players.
“But a lot of guards are still getting varsity experience,” Willoughby said. “You throw them in a game like this late in the game and there’s some uncertainty. I didn’t think anyone was real strong coming to the ball late in the game tonight, and I think that’s probably because of our lack of experience, because they weren’t in games late last year.”
Jones, who is 6-2, is the only returning post player — and he was a first-year player last year. Joining Martin from junior varsity is Swiger, who is 6-2 and 260 pounds and was a force on JV last year.
Jones had nine rebounds on Tuesday while Swiger had four rebounds and finished with six points.
“Those three guys are alternating depending on our matchups,” Willoughby said. “They’re good rebounders and all three of them are good defenders, but we’re trying to grow them into being a little bit better post players on the offensive end where we can throw it into them and they can get something done.”
Sidney is one of two MVL teams that are still undefeated, with the other being fellow Valley League member West Carrollton, which beat Fairborn 71-64 on Tuesday.
It’s the first year of the newly reformed MVL, and the makeup of the league’s standings already have a different look from how the league’s squads finished in Greater Western Ohio Conference play last year.
Vandalia-Butler, which won the GWOC American North last year, is tied for first in the MVL Miami Division with Tippecanoe and Troy, which both finished under .500 last year. The three teams each have 2-1 conference records.
Sidney, which finished second in the GWOC North a year ago, is tied with West Carrollton for first place in the MVL Valley Division. The Pirates were 6-17 overall last year and finished in last place in the GWOC South.
Stebbins, which finished just ahead of West Carrollton last year, is in third in the Valley Division at 2-1. Fairborn and Xenia — the top two GWOC South teams a year ago that are in the MVL this year — are fourth and fifth.
The Yellow Jackets have put themselves in a good position to compete for both the Valley Division title and the overall MVL title, which is awarded to the team with the best league winning percentage.
But plenty of games remain. Each squad plays each other twice, meaning 18 of the teams’ 22 regular-season games are conference contests.
Sidney has a busy slate of MVL games coming up. The squad hosts Butler on Friday, travels to Xenia on Tuesday and hosts Troy on Dec. 20.
Friday’s game with Butler could be entertaining. The two squads have played in several down-to-the-wire games in recent years, including an overtime game in Vandalia last December.
Sidney hasn’t won a home matchup with the Aviators since Dec. 11, 2015.
Reach Bryant Billing at 937-538-4818, or follow @SidneyOHSports on Twitter and @BryantBillingSDN on Facebook.