By Josh Brown
CASSTOWN — Last year, when Miami East fell to Tri-Village — which went on to win the Cross County Conference title en route to a Division IV state championship — the Vikings were without one of their biggest weapons, Damien Mackesy.
The senior made all the difference Tuesday night.
Mackesy scored a game-high 20 points, including going 10 for 10 from the free throw line in the final quarter alone to put away a 36-29 victory over the Patriots Tuesday night at Miami East, giving the Vikings sole possession of the CCC lead with four conference games remaining on their schedule and putting Tri-Village’s run of three straight league titles in jeopardy.
“After missing last year’s game, I was hungry tonight,” Mackesy said. “To end their run is a good feeling. Nerves kill you early, and it took a while to get settled in. But once we all settled in, we started playing our best basketball of the year.”
“Damien missed last year’s game against them, but he’s not the kind of kid to talk before the game. He lets his play stand on its own,” Miami East boys basketball coach Allen Mack said. “I couldn’t be more pleased with how he stepped up. It was one of those games where it was really hard to score. It was a physical game, there was a lot of banging around under the basket and the defense was solid on both ends. But if there’s one guy we have to rely on for offense, it’s Damien.”
The matchup was for so much more than the CCC lead, though — the Vikings (12-1, 8-0 CCC) entered the game ranked No. 3 in D-III in the latest state poll, while the Patriots (14-3, 8-1 CCC) were No. 4 in D-IV and coming off a 64-49 loss to Winchester (Ind.) on Saturday. Tri-Village had also lost earlier in the season to Northridge — one of the teams the Vikings could potentially end up facing in the sectional, depending on how the tournament draw plays out in two weeks. Northridge, currently No. 5 in D-III, defeated Tri-Village 64-46 back on Dec. 5.
“I was really pleased,” Mack said. “Tri-Village has been dominant in the league in the last three years, and these seniors had never beaten them. We played well tonight, but it means so much more when you can do it against a quality basketball team like a defending state champion. This game was a No. 3 against No. 4 in the state, and it definitely played out like that.”
It certainly played out like a game between two championship level defenses.
The Vikings held the Patriots to 11 for 41 (27 percent) from the field and 3 for 20 (15 percent) from 3-point range — and even without a defender in the face, Tri-Village struggled, going 4 for 10 (40 percent) from the free throw line.
“It’s been our calling card this year. We’re on a pace to set the school record for fewest points allowed in a season,” Mack said. We came into tonight four points under. This was a team win and a defensive effort that the kids can be proud of.
“That’s a great basketball team, and this was our biggest win in a while. I was proud of the defense for stepping up and holding a team like that under 30 points.”
But Miami East, meanwhile, didn’t fare much better on the offensive end. The Vikings shot 11 for 36 (31 percent) for the game, and they were only 1 for 8 from the free throw line going into the fourth quarter.
Tri-Village held a 7-1 lead with 2:50 left in the first quarter before Mackesy scored on a putback in transition then stole the ball and took it in for a layup, cutting the lead to two in the blink of an eye. But the rest of the quarter went by without anyone else scoring — until Kley Karadak came off the bench to hit the Vikings’ lone 3 of the game early in the second quarter, giving East the lead. Tri-Village tied the score twice in the second quarter, but Mackesy scored inside to give the Vikings a 12-10 lead at the half — and they would not trail again.
After a Tri-Village free throw made the score 12-11 early in the third quarter, Mackesy scored in the paint and drew a foul, missing the free throw but eventually getting a third-chance putback to give the Vikings a 16-11 lead — a four-point swing on one play. And in the end, that proved to be the difference.
“We got a little edge in the third, and from there Damien went to work from the free throw line,” Mack said. “In a game this low scoring, there’s not really any runs. You get the sense that if either team can get an edge or even a little spurt, it’ll turn into a possession game. It comes down to who can possess the ball and make their free throws.”
A jumper by Tyler VanWinkle at the buzzer to end the third briefly cut the Vikings’ lead to 18-15, but Michael Werling hit a jumper to open the fourth and make it a five-point game again. He then grabbed a defensive rebound and got it to Mackesy, who hit a pair of free throws to give East its biggest lead of the game to that point at 22-15.
A 3 by Tri-Village’s Gavin Richards cut the lead to 24-20, and a free throw by Trace Couch got the Patriots to within three with 4:43 to play. But a layup by Ryan Haney in transition and two more free throws by Mackesy blew the lead back up to 28-21 with two minutes to play, and a series of free throws and a putback by Haney off of another missed free throw gave the Vikings a 33-23 cushion with one minute remaining. VanWinkle later hit a 3 to make it a six-point game with 25.5 seconds left, but by then it was too little, too late.
Mackesy added 10 rebounds to his game-high 20 points, while Haney scored six of his eight points in the fourth quarter. Werling added five points and seven rebounds, Karadak had three points and Logan West had eight rebounds and two blocked shots as the Vikings outrebounded the Patriots 34-28.
VanWinkle led Tri-Village with 13 points, Richards added 11, Couch had three points, three blocked shots and a team-high seven rebounds and Brett Boyter added two points.
And while the Vikings will celebrate the win, they’re far from done.
“Sure, this is a special win. But you know how coaches think,” Mack said. “Three of our four conference games remaining are against teams that are .500 or better. We’ve got to remain focused. But this was a big step forward, and this performance was special.”
“This was a great win. But I don’t want it to be the highlight of the season, for sure,” Mackesy said.
Contact Josh Brown at (937) 552-2132, or follow @TroyDailySports on Twitter.