VANDALIA — Anna’s full-court press has flustered a lot of teams this season and was too much for National Trail to handle on Saturday in a Division III district final.
After a close first half, the Rockets sped things up with an all-guard lineup in the second half, forced a bunch of turnovers and converted them into easy layups to pull away to a 69-54 victory at Vandalia-Butler’s Student Activity Center.
It’s the second consecutive district title for the Rockets (22-4), which will play in a regional semifinal on Wednesday.
Anna won the Shelby County Athletic League in regular season and became the league’s third member to win a district championship. Fort Loramie and Jackson Center won D-IV district titles on Friday in Vandalia.
National Trail, which won the Cross County Conference, finishes 21-4 overall.
The Rockets lagged at the start of the season. Many of the players also played for the school’s Div. V state champion football squad and were sluggish in the early weeks of basketball season.
The team lost two of its first four games but has lost twice in its last 22.
“We were a little shaky to start off and a little slow and we had to get the momentum back and team chemistry back,” Anna senior guard Kamren Steward said. “We’re on a roll now and we’re ready to try to get back to state.”
Anna advances to face Dayton Stivers at 8 p.m. on Wednesday at University of Dayton Arena. Stivers, which lost to Anna 70-52 in a regional semifinal last year, upset Cincinnati Taft 77-73 in a district final on Saturday at Northmont High School.
Anna coach Nate Barhorst said the team has been scrimmaging a lot in recent weeks since it scrimmaged once in preseason due to the football team’s state title run. Barhorst said he thinks the recent postseason experiences in both sports will be beneficial in playing in regional games.
“They’ve been on the big stage,” Barhorst said. “I don’t think that’s going to rattle them. It’s more of the execution of what we’ve got to do with the team that we’re playing.”
Anna led 32-29 at halftime and pulled away quickly in the third quarter thanks to its full-court defense forcing a flurry of turnovers that led to several fast-break layups.
The Blazers scored the first basket of the third to pull within one point but Anna went on an 11-2 run over the next four minutes that Steward capped off with a basket with 4:01 left.
“We switched up our lineup there to get a little more pressure there and a little more helpside (defense),” Barhorst said. “… Our strategy was to go more guards to get more pressure and keep them out of the gut because it seemed like they were getting a little too much penetration out of us.”
National Trail’s Coleton Everman made a basket at the third-quarter buzzer to pull the team within 50-45. Anna held the Blazers scoreless over the first three minutes of the fourth. Isaiah Masteller and Steward made baskets during that time and Isaac Lininger made a 3-pointer from the left wing with 5:01 left to give the Rockets a 57-45 lead.
Steward led Anna with 19 points while Lininger finished with 16 and Riley Huelskamp scored 15, eight of which came on free throws in the second half.
Zach Woodall led National Trail with 22 points while Cameron Harrison scored 16.
“We knew that they were going to have two strong kids in the Harrison and the Woodall kid,” Barhorst said. “They’re pretty darn good for a reason. I felt our pressure kind of helped us build up that lead over the length of the second half. …We rotated (a lot of different guards) on them, and they did a good job of keeping them contained.”
The teams traded points early in a fast-paced first half until the Blazers went on a 10-1 run in about 90 seconds. Harrison started the run with a 3 with 4:30 left and capped it off with a pair of free throws with 2:58 left to give National Trail a 13-8 lead.
Anna pulled within one point later in the quarter but Harrison hit a basket at the buzzer to give National Trail a 21-18 lead. Steward opened the second with a 3 to tie it but National Trail scored the next four points to take a 25-21 lead with 4:22 left and force Anna to call a timeout.
The Rockets then went on a 10-2 run, which Bart Bixler capped off with a basket in the final minute to push the lead to 32-27. Woodall made a basket with about eight seconds left to cut the gap to three points at halftime.
Barhorst said it was a good tune-up heading into regional tournament play, where the Rockets are likely to see even more fast-paced play.
“I told our team that a lot of teams are getting our film,” Barhorst said. “… They know that if they are going to be able to score on us, it’s going to be in transition, because we’re a transition team ourselves. That’s one of the weaknesses of transition teams is having trouble getting back, and we’ve really been working on that.”
Reach Bryant Billing at 937-538-4818, or follow @SidneyOHSports on Twitter and @BryantBillingSDN on Facebook.