PIQUA — Though Jackson Center blasted Russia both times the teams played in Shelby County Athletic League play in regular season, coach Scott Elchert wasn’t expecting an easy time when the teams met again.
Because it was going to be at Piqua in a Division IV district semifinal, and he’s coached long enough to know it’s never easy in that third round of the tournament.
Especially against an SCAL opponent, no matter what happened in regular season.
“I’m biased, but I’ve got so much respect for our league and the quality of basketball that’s played night in and night out,” Elchert said. “When you’re playing someone for the third time, you know it’s going to be a dogfight. History tells me that.”
It was a dogfight, but the veteran Tigers scored the last 12 points to pull away to a 41-31 victory and advance to a D-IV district final for the third consecutive year. It’s the eighth time in the last 10 years the program has advanced out of Piqua to a district final.
“It seems like every year, it’s something like this. It’s a fight,” Elchert said. “I give Russia ton of credit. Their coaching staff did a great job of taking a young team at the beginning of the year and growing. The amount of growth that they’ve shown is off the charts.”
The Tigers (19-6) will face Cedarville in a district final on Saturday at Vandalia-Butler High School’s Student Activity Center. The squads faced off in a district final last season, and Jackson Center eeked out a 33-30 win.
“They’re a really nice team again,” Elchert said. “We know we’ve got our work cut out of us. That’s what this week’s all about.”
Russia finishes 11-14 overall. The Raiders started the season 5-9 but played batter late, even in games they lost. They played SCAL co-champion Botkins to a two-point loss on Feb. 12 after having loss by 22 points the first time the squads played.
“We’ve grown a lot this year,” Russia coach Dave Borchers said. “We weren’t very good when we started. It wasn’t very pretty. But they got after it all the time, soaked up as much knowledge as they could, played as hard as they can. They accepted coaching, and they sharpened each other.
“The results have been good. We’ve had a nice run the last month or so. The progress and the improvement has been amazing. It’s all because of them getting after it.”
Russia will lose three seniors to graduation in Nicholas Caldwell, Jonathan Bell and Austin Cordonnier.
“It’s hard to know what they brought without being inside and seeing it,” Borchers said. “Jonathan Bell has developed into a tremendous leader out on the floor. …Austin Cordonnier, you can’t ask for better character out of somebody. Nicholas, too.
“… They never stopped coming and helping and doing what they could. Especially for Austin and Nicholas, they didn’t get as much playing time this year as they would have liked. But did they ever put their head down? No. Did they ever complain? Not once. All they did was raise the rest of the team up. …The class they all have is amazing.”
It was close until the Tigers pulled away in the final three minutes.
Carson Regula scored seven points in the third quarter to help Jackson Center built a 10-8 lead. The squad used a 12-9 scoring edge in the second to push its lead to 22-17 at halftime, but Russia quickly battled back.
Zane Shappie hit two early baskets and Bell made a late 3 to help the squad take a 28-26 lead.
Nolan Fark made a late 3 for the Tigers before the end of the quarter to give them a one-point lead heading into the fourth.
“We came out with a different game plan, and we executed well. It was impressive to see from my viewpoint how we reacted, how we carried ourselves and how we fought hard for it,” Borchers said. “We came up a little bit short, but that’s okay. Just to see the fight and the character and the way they conducted themselves, I couldn’t have been more proud.”
Nolan Fark made a late 3 for the Tigers before the end of the third to give them a one-point lead heading into the fourth.
Brayden Monnin hit a 3 to open the fourth and give Russia a 31-29 lead, but Regula responded with a 3 to put the Tigers ahead by one point again with less than six minutes left.
Jackson Center was able to extend the lead after a near-minute long possession.
Senior forward Aidan Reichert missed a 3-pointer from the top of the key after the team had passed around for over 30 seconds, but Camdyn Reese came away with a long rebound after both teams had players touch it.
The squad passed around more and worked it back to Reichert at the top of the key. This time, Reichert took the ball down the lane and hit a floater with about 3:50 left to give the squad a 34-31 lead.
“That was big, but the turning point was that we were able to just buckle down defensively (in the fourth) and keep getting stops,” Elchert said. “The three-point cushion helped out there in making sure they were going to have to hit a 3.”
Russia didn’t score on its next possession, and Regula hit a 3 to push the lead to six points. Reichert hit 4-of-6 free-throw attempts down the stretch to help secure the win.
Regula finished with 15 points while Fark finished with 11. Reichert, who was named the SCAL player of the year in February, finished with nine.
Reichert averaged 19.1 points per game in regular season but scored in single digits in Jackson Center’s first three tournament games.
“We still win all three games and still advance,” Elchert said. “That continues to prove to our guys that we’ve got other players out on the floor that can make shots and make plays.”
Hayden Quinter led Russia with seven points while Shappie and Bell each scored six.
Reach Bryant Billing at 937-538-4818, or follow @SidneyOHSports on Twitter and @BryantBillingSDN on Facebook.