JACKSON CENTER — Close games are the norm when Jackson Center and Russia play in Shelby County Athletic League action. And recently, Russia wins have been the norm as well.
Russia beat Jackson Center 38-33 on Friday to stay unbeaten in SCAL play. It’s Russia’s sixth win in the last seven meetings between the two schools. Aside from a 10-point win by Russia in the squads’ first meeting last year, none of the games have been decided by more than five points.
“It’s always a dogfight,” Russia coach Spencer Cordonnier said. “They’re very well-schooled and the guard very, very well. They’re well-disciplined. …It’s just a grind.”
Though Cordonnier said the team needs to shoot at a higher percentage going forward, Russia (3-1, 2-0 SCAL) was able to come up with key baskets late on Friday.
Clutch free throw shooting down the stretch — particularly from junior forward Daniel Kearns — also helped Russia fight off a Jackson Center rally. The Tigers (1-2, 0-1) made two 3-pointers in the last minute which pulled them within three points each time.
“I felt like we battled all night, and I feel like that’s important for this team,” Jackson Center coach Scott Elchert said. “I feel we played tentative all last weekend, even in our win (Friday against Lehman) and our loss (Saturday against Columbus Grove). That game last Saturday was one of those ugly ones that we let get away, but we battled from the get-go tonight, and I’m pleased to see us respond.”
Sophomore guard Christopher Elchert hit a 3-pointer with 5:31 left in the third quarter to give Jackson Center a 21-20 lead.
The Tigers didn’t score the rest of the quarter, though, and Russia built a lead as a result.
“I just wish at times we would have made better decisions with the basketball,” Elchert said. “In a close game like that when the score ends up in the 30’s… it really does boil down to every possession meaning something. I feel like we just had a few too many possesions we didn’t capitalize on.”
Kearns hit an inside shot with 4:14 left to give the Raiders the lead, then Hunter Cohee made a short jumper with 3:34 left to extend the lead to 24-21 with 3:34 left.
The Raiders didn’t score the rest of the third quarter, and Jackson Center tied the game at 24-24 after a 3-pointer by Bryce Sosby with 6:25 left in the fourth.
Cordonnier credited Jackson Center’s defense for frustrating the Raiders at times but said they had several good shots they couldn’t hit.
“We’re struggling offensively again,” Cordonnier said. “We’ve put some new stuff in, and I told the kids it was going to take a while, but I didn’t think it would take this long. We’ve got some things that we’ve got to get corrected, but we’ve got to keep grinding, keep playing.”
The Raiders kept grinding after Jackson Center tied the game early in the fourth.
After Sosby’s tying 3, Russia scored the next four points. Kearns hit a free throw with 6:15 left, then Jordan York hit a 3-pointer from the right wing with 4:35 left to give the Raiders a 28-24 lead.
Trent Platfoot hit a 3 with 3:42 left to bring Jackson Center within one point, but Kearns drove inside and scored on Russia’s next possession and made a foul shot to complete a three-point play and put Russia ahead 31-27.
Jack Dapore made a shot with 1:21 left to boost Russia’s lead to six, but Platfoot hit a 3-pointer with 56 seconds left to pull Jackson Center within 33-30. Evan Monnier made two free throws and Dion Puthoff made one in the next 35 seconds to put Russia up by six points.
Christopher Elchert made a 3 from the top of the key with nine seconds left to bring Jackson Center within 36-33, but Kearns made two foul shots with six seconds left to secure the win for Russia.
“We were playing good defensively overall, but we’ve got to do a better job getting out on shooters, especially in the fourth quarter,” Cordonnier said. “We gave up two 3’s there down the stretch where we just ran into screens and didn’t get around them. We’ve got to know in that situation you always guard shooters a certain way, and we didn’t do it.”
Kearns led Russia with 14 points and made 6-of-7 free throw attempts in the second half.
“He stepped up big there,” Cordonnier said. “He did good, and Dion Puthoff stepped up with that big one. He didn’t play much tonight, but he came in and did his job.”
Dapore added eight points for the Raiders, and Jordan York scored seven points. Platfoot led Jackson Center with 11 points, and Elchert finished with nine.
Russia made 11-of-13 foul shots in the game, and Jackson Center made 3-of-9.
“We sure as heck didn’t help ourselves at the free-throw line,” Elchert said. “… But I like this team. They are a young group overall, and they battled. We’ve got to take each day that we’re together as an opportunity to continue to get better.”
Russia has four starters listed 6-2 and taller, while Jackson Center has only one taller than 6-1. Russia won the rebounding battle 26-20, but Elchert said he was pleased with how Jackson Center battled on the boards. He was also happy the Tigers gave up only five offensive rebounds to Russia.
“It was tough, because we had one senior guarding in the post and the rest were sophomores and a freshman we were calling upon,” Elchert said. “If you play post defense properly and work hard, it’s the toughest thing to do out on the floor. But our guys did it.
“We knew going in they were big and physical and everything for Russia is primarily going to start inside-out since they’re trying to take advantage of their size. That was a good challenge for us that I felt our guys responded to pretty well, and we can learn from it.”
Russia scored three baskets in a minute span in the first quarter to break a 4-4 tie and take a seven-point lead. Kearns hit a shot off the glass to start the run with 3:20 left, then Carter Francis followed with a steal and layup 20 seconds later. Dapore then hit a long 3-pointer with 2:16 left to give the Raiders an 11-4 lead.
Jackson Center held Russia scoreless over the next five minutes and battled back to tie the game. Elchert hit a 3-pointer from the right wing with just over a minute left in the first, then Aidan Reichert made a putback with 30 seconds left to bring Jackson Center within 11-9.
Platfoot hit a shot of the glass with 6:36 left in the second to tie the game, and it was a back-and-forth contest after that.
Kearns made two foul shots with 17 seconds left to give Russia an 18-16 lead, which was the score at halftime.
“We missed a bunch of shots in the paint in the first half,” Cordonnier said. “Part of that is from us, and part of that is the way they guard. We’ve got to make shots like that. To beat good teams and to separate yourself, you’ve got to make shots like that, and we’ve had a problem with that so far this year, missing a lot of cookies I guess you could say.”
Russia returns to action on Saturday at Arcanum.
Jackson Center has a week to prepare for its next game. The Tigers travel to Anna next Friday for an SCAL game, and Elchert said the team will have its hands full with the high-scoring Rockets. Anna beat Houston 84-39 on Friday and won a season opener last Tuesday 99-90 over New Bremen.
“We’ve got the motto of, ‘learn from this, turn the page,’ and we’re on to Anna,” Elchert said. “The way they’re playing, that presents another challenge in itself. But in this league, that’s just kind of the way it is.”
Contact Bryant Billing at (937) 538-4818, or follow @SidneyOHSports on Twitter.