ANNA — Anna senior guard Bart Bixler suffered a black eye late in a Shelby County Athletic League game against Fort Loramie on Friday. It was a fitting representation to the start of the season for the Rockets, which dropped to 1-2 with the 14-point loss.
After taking hits in its first three games, a weekend “kumbaya” appears to have woken the team up and returned it to hitter’s form.
The Rockets dominated previously undefeated Jackson Center 59-38 in an SCAL game on Monday to avoid what could have been a serious blow to its chances as repeating as the league’s champion.
Anna (2-2, 1-1) would have joined Botkins with two league losses if it wasn’t victorious on Monday and would have been far back in league standings from Jackson Center (6-1, 4-1). With the victory, Anna stays in SCAL contention along with Fort Loramie and Fairlawn, which also have one league loss each.
“This means everything,” Bixler said. “It opens up the league race now and means we can go get a league title. I think this is a bounce back-game, especially against one of the toughest teams we’re going to play all season. It’ll help us in the long run.”
Anna started late due to the school’s football team’s historic playoff run, which ended on Dec. 6 with a victory in the Div. VI state championship game.
The basketball squad started practicing the next week and had less than two weeks of preparation before it opened the season on Dec. 21 at New Bremen.
The black eyes — figurative and literal — came fast.
The squad lost its opener 57-54 but bounced back with a 94-39 win over New Knoxville two days later. It suffered a big blow on Friday, though, as Fort Loramie dominated in a 55-41 victory.
It wasn’t the start many expected for Anna, which returns three starters and six total letterwinners from last season’s 25-3 regional runner-up squad.
“Talking to some other coaches around the area (that have previously had late starts due to football), they said we were going to have more adversity at the start of the season than you’d think,” Anna coach Nate Barhorst said. “To have this kind of game is huge for us. It breaks us out, gives us momentum and opens up the league race again.
“… We challenged our kids the last few days. The Loramie game really opened our eyes. We had to figure something out, and the past two days, we had a little ‘kumbaya’ and got it together.”
The Rockets were together on both ends of the floor on Monday. They clogged the lane and prevented Jackson Center from getting hardly any shots in the post and repeatedly leapt over the Tigers for rebounds.
“We’re a team that’s a very get-up-and-go team, but at the same time, we’re our biggest enemy,” Barhorst said. “That hurt us against Loramie. Loramie did a great job of passing the ball around. We were out of position, and that poor defense led to poor offense and vice versa.
“Tonight, we didn’t let anything get to our heads. We took a few bad shots here and there, but we still were able to regroup and get it under control.”
Anna also took advantage of turnovers to help fuel is transition offense. But even without turnovers, Anna was able to repeatedly drive inside for close-range shots that oftentimes fell.
Bixler scored a game-high 18 points and had several assists, including in the second half when he made a diving save under Anna’s basket by passing to senior guard Isaac Linger, who made a shot off the glass.
Lininger finished with 10 points and senior forward Kamren Steward scored eight.
“We got great balance inside and out. Our bigs played well and our guards cut and read the defense,” Barhorst said. “It’s everything we were hoping to get at the start of the season.”
Aidan Reichert led Jackson Center with 14 points, nine of which came in the first half. Christopher Elchert scored 10 points and Garrett Prenger scored nine.
Jackson Center coach Scott Elchert said he was disappointed with the squad’s defensive effort and failure to control Anna’s fast-paced attack. The Tigers had allowed an average of 30.8 points in its first six games and hadn’t allowed more than 48 points in any contest.
“They played well and they got us out of our game,” Elchert said. “It didn’t feel like we responded well. But the season’s still early, and I like the makeup of my team. We’ll get back to work tomorrow.”
Anna jumped out 9-2 after a 3-pointer by Lininger with about five minutes left in the first quarter. Jackson Center closed the gap to 13-10 but the Rockets scored the last five points of the quarter to push the lead to seven.
Garrett Prenger hit a 3 from the left wing with 3:54 left in the second quarter to close the gap to four points, and the teams traded baskets to a 28-24 halftime score.
Anna started the third quarter with a 6-1 run to take a 34-25 lead. Ben Kovacs made a three-point play to extend the lead to 37-27 with 2:03 left, then Bixler followed with a three-point play with 1:15 left to push the advantage to 40-29.
“It seemed like every time we started to cut into their lead, we couldn’t create a break for ourselves to get us over that hump,” Elchert said. “I felt like we didn’t have a good start to the third quarter by allowing them to expand that four-point lead, and they just steadily expanded it. We really started taking rushed shots after that, like we were thinking all of a sudden we were going to make a shot that counted for nine points.”
Bixler scored on a put-back with 0.6 seconds left in the quarter to put Anna ahead 42-29, and the squad used a 17-9 scoring advantage in the fourth to run away.
“When I came into the locker room at halftime, I saw fire in everybody’s eyes,” Bixler said. “I knew it was going to a battle tonight. We responded in the second half and we came out and did what we needed to do.”
The Rockets will try to keep that fire on Saturday when they travel to Marion Local. Jackson Center will play next on Friday at Fairlawn.
Reach Bryant Billing at 937-538-4818, or follow @SidneyOHSports on Twitter and @BryantBillingSDN on Facebook.