By Josh Brown
KETTERING – Early in the third quarter, Troy Christian’s student section erupted in an “I believe that we will win! I believe that we will win!” chant.
Practically in response, Tri-Village stole an entry pass that trip then drew a charge on the next trip down, and a pair of buckets on the other end gave the Patriots a 40-20 lead with 5:30 to play.
It seemed like the Eagles’ belief couldn’t stand up to the march of inevitability.
Then the fourth quarter happened – and Troy Christian scored the first seven points of the quarter in the first minute, and soon after that the seemingly-insurmountable lead was in single digits.
In the end, though, the Patriots (25-1) made clutch plays in the paint – particularly on the boards – which helped them hang on for a 59-49 victory in what turned into a thrilling Division IV regional semifinal Tuesday at Trent Arena.
Even down by as many as 20 and by 16 at 48-32 heading into the final eight minutes of the game, the Eagles never stopped believing.
“That starts with the training we give them,” Troy Christian coach Ray Zawadzki said. “It starts on Day One. We, as coaches, believe in them, and we train them to believe in each other. And from there, we teach them all to believe in the next play.
“The kids never gave up. The lead got to 20, and we cut it down to as close as seven.”
Troy Christian (24-3) held the lead in the first quarter as late as 12-8 thanks to a pair of 3s by senior Holden Varvel. But Tri-Village, which has relied on three players – Tyler and Damion Cook and Colton Linkous – all season, got a spark from Mason McCabe off the bench. McCabe was a perfect 4 for 4 from 3-point range, shooting the Patriots out to a 34-20 halftime lead.
“You can’t predict those things,” Zawadzki said. “We haven’t seen him make four in a row like that all year. But we adjusted and took him out of the game the rest of the way. That’s when they made the low post their offensive focus, and we struggled a bit defensively.”
But the Eagles also took out the Patriots’ favorite weapon, Tyler Cook. Tri-Village’s leading scorer was held to four points in the game.
“If you told me before the game that Tyler Cook was only going to score four points and we were going to lose, I wouldn’t have believed you,” Zawadzki said. “But they’re a quality basketball team, and they’ve got more than just one weapon.”
And the one that hurt the Eagles most was the connection between Tyler VanWinkle and Linkous.
VanWinkle had eight assists from the point guard spot, with all of them going to either Linkous or Damion Cook. Linkous finished with a game-high 20 points, while Damion Cook added 14 points and eight rebounds as the Patriots built a 48-32 edge after three.
But the Eagles still believed.
Grant Zawadzki hit a 3 to start the fourth, then stole the ball and took it in for a quick layup. After a rare one-and-done by Tri-Village, Zawadzki drove and dumped to senior Logan George (six points) for a layup to make the score 48-39 and force a Patriot timeout with 7:19 to go.
Damion Cook ended the run with a drive, but Varvel canned another 3 to cut it to 50-42 with five minutes to go. Tyler Cook then finished off a long possession with a bucket inside push it back to 10 with four minutes to play, but a 3 by senior Spencer Thomas (seven points) cut it to 52-45.
Tri-Village missed a pair of free throws, but Damion Cook got the biggest offensive rebound of the game and scored a putback, but Zawadzki stole the ball and found senior Aaron Horn (seven points) for a layup to cut it to seven again at 54-47 with less than two minutes to play.
VanWinkle hit a pair of free throws and the Eagles came up empty on the next possession, though. Tri-Village again missed two free throws – but the Eagles couldn’t hold onto the rebound going out of bounds, and Linkous hit 3 of 4 free throws to seal it.
Zawadzki finished with 15 points and five assists, while Varvel hit four 3s and added 12 points for Troy Christian. The Eagles were outrebounded 31-17 in the game.
The Eagles, who beat the Patriots in the regional semifinal last season on their way to the program’s first-ever state semifinal appearance, say goodbye to six seniors in Varvel, Thomas, Horn, George, Nathanael Boone and Travis Sloan.
“These six seniors have left a legacy,” Ray Zawadzki said. “They’ve raised the bar to a level where it’ll be hard for anyone else to reach it. They’re just irreplaceable.
“And it’s not just because of their basketball skill, either. It’s their character, too. That’s going to carry them a long way in life.”
Because, no matter the situation, they never stopped believing.
Tri-Village – 59
Tyler VanWinkle 2-2-6, Tommy Bell 1-0-3, Mason McCabe 4-0-12, Damion Cook 7-0-14, Colton Linkous 7-5-20, Tyler Cook 2-0-4. Totals: 22-7-59.
Troy Christian – 49
Holden Varvel 4-0-12, Aaron Horn 3-1-7, Spencer Thomas 2-1-7, Logan George 2-2-6, Isaiah Fairley 1-0-2, Dusty Poteet 0-0-0, Travis Sloan 0-0-0, Nathanael Boone 0-0-0, Luke Dillahunt 0-0-0, Grant Zawadzki 4-4-15. Totals: 16-8-49.
Score By Quarters
TV 16 34 48 59
TC 12 20 32 49
3-point goals: Tri-Village – Bell, McCabe 4, Linkous. Troy Christian – Varvel 4, Thomas 2, Zawadzki 3.
Records: Tri-Village 25-1. Troy Christian 24-3.