VANDALIA — Anna fought back from a 12-point deficit in the second half to take an early lead in overtime against Cincinnati Taft but couldn’t keep up in the final minutes.
The Rockets didn’t score in the last three minutes of overtime and lost 62-57 in a Division III regional semifinal on Wednesday at Vandalia-Butler’s Student Activity Center to finish 21-6 overall.
The Senators (15-4) scored the first four points of the third quarter to take a 37-25 lead, but Anna pulled within one point by the end of the quarter and tied it in the last minute of the fourth.
“That just says we play relentless,” Anna coach Nate Barhorst said. “We’re going to find a way to claw, scratch back. I knew it was going to happen at one point in time. When that was (going to happen) was only a matter of time.
“I give so much credit to our boys battling back. We could have folded. We could have said, ‘You’re athletic, you’re skilled. Go get your thing and beat us by 30.’ But we didn’t. We hung in there. We gave ourselves a fighting chance.”
The Rockets struggled with the athleticism and size of Taft, which finished second in the Cincinnati Metro Athletic Conference’s Red Division. The Senators, which play in the loaded Cincinnati public school league, are led by sophomore Rayvon Griffith.
Griffith, a 6-foot-5 guard, is drawing interest from major Division I universities and averages 23.5 points and 9.1 rebounds per game.
While no one else averages more than 8.3 points per game for the Senators, there’s plenty of speed, athleticism and length to go around. The team averages 9.5 steals and 25.4 rebounds per game.
While Anna was unable to get any of the transition baskets it’s used to, it was able to stay close in the face of tremendous defensive pressure and applied some of its own. The Senators committed 14 turnovers in the second half while Anna committed four, two of which came late in overtime.
“That definitely was the best team that we’ve played all year with size and everything,” Barhorst said. “Just giving ourselves a fighting chance is remarkable. We told the boys, ‘You can be right there, you really can.’”
The Rockets took a 14-12 lead late in the first quarter, but Taft scored the last four points of the first and the first four of the second to take a six-point lead.
Taft pushed its lead to 33-25 by halftime, and Griffith and Yaaco Nelson scored early baskets in the third to push the advantage to 37-25.
But Anna got back in it quickly. Zach Ambos hit two 3-pointers, Isaiah Masteller hit one and Kovacs hit a late 3 pointers to help shrink the gap to 45-44 by the end of the third.
Ambos, a 5-foot-9 guard, also played a big role defensively aside from his key third-quarter 3’s. The Rockets switched to a man-to-man defense in the second half, which helped in creating turnovers.
“A few possessions we went back to the zone, but after we got down (12), we had to do something,” Barhorst said. “We had to come out and make them do something, and we told Zach that this is where he’d really have to come to play and dig down. We had a couple of things that bounced our way and got some steals and actually penetrated and get some calls down the stretch.”
Masteller hit three foul shots in a four-second span to tie it 49-49 before Nelson made a basket with 2:45 left to give Taft a 51-49 lead.
The Senators later pushed their lead to four points, but Kovacs hit a shot to cut the gap to 53-51 with 1:31 left and Masteller made a basket in the paint in the final minute to tie it.
Both squads had several opportunities to break the tie but couldn’t, including a long 3 by Masteller at the buzzer.
McKane Finkenbine and Masteller each hit early baskets to put Anna ahead 57-53 in overtime.
But Taft controlled the rest of the game. Nelson hit a basket, then Brandon Miles made a basket and free throw to give the squad a 58-57 lead. The Rockets missed a series of jumpers and committed a couple of late turnovers, and the Senators capitalized by hitting four foul shots down the stretch.
“They came with the trap and action and we kind of got a little rushed, kind of turned without looking to see who we’re throwing to,” Barhorst said of the late turnovers.
Barhorst credited Masteller with performing well in the fourth quarter after being stuffed in the post while trying to drive most of the rest of the game. He scored seven of his 12 points in the fourth quarter and overtime.
“We told him that his time was going to come where he’d be able to have that drive penetration, and he’d just have to stick with it,” Barhorst said. “We were on the officials a lot for not getting any kind of calls, and we thought he was drawing it. He finally was able to do that late.”
Finkenbine, a junior guard, scored 17 points, as did Kovacs.
Griffith scored 28 points while Nelson finished with 18.
Masteller, who has been drawing interest from Division III universities and junior colleges, is one of five seniors the squad will lose to graduation. The squad will also lose forwards in Kovacs, Jacob Robinson and Isaac McDermott and guard Connor McKinney.
Masteller, Kovacs and Robinson are starters while McDermott played off the bench. Masteller is the only one of the group that saw significant playing time in previous seasons.
“How many people saw this coming?” Barhorst said of the group’s success in earning a third straight regional berth and fourth-straight Shelby County Athletic League title. “To be in this position at this time of year, it’s been a blessing. It’s been a great time, and I can’t ask for much more than they gave tonight.”
Cincinnati Taft advances to face Springfield Shawnee in a regional final on Saturday. The Braves beat Versailles 58-55 in Wednesday’s second regional semifinal.
Reach Bryant Billing at 937-538-4818, or follow @SidneyOHSports on Twitter and @BryantBillingSDN on Facebook.