By Josh Brown
CASSTOWN — With his team trailing by one in the final 30 seconds, Miami East’s Austin Rutledge put the importance of practice on display.
“I was just thinking I’ve got to make the play,” he said when asked what ran through his head when he saw a shot by a teammate bounce high off the rim. “I mean, I’ve done it a dozens times in practice. It all just came to me naturally.”
Rutledge tipped in a missed shot by Austin Kearns with 20 seconds remaining to give the Vikings their first lead since the second quarter, Logan West sank a pair of clutch free throws with 6.6 seconds left to make it a three-point game and Newton’s attempt at a game-tying 3-pointer was off the mark as Miami East rallied from seven down in the final quarter to grab a 43-40 Cross County Conference victory from the Indians Tuesday night.
The Miami East junior also grabbed the rebound on the missed 3 by the Indians in the final seconds to seal the win, moving the Vikings to 10-9 on the season and 5-5 in the CCC.
“It meant a lot to us,” Rutledge said of the win. “We’ve had to come back a lot this year, gone to overtime three or four times. We’ve got experience closing out close games like this.”
“This was our seventh game decided by five points or less this year,” Miami East coach Allen Mack said. “We won our first three, had then lost our last three, and now we came out on top in another close one. I think we had one or two games within five points all last year. Our kids have had to play in a lot of tight games, and fortunately tonight we made the plays down the stretch.”
Newton — which has seen its share of overtime games this season, too — fell to 5-13 with the loss despite the solid effort and near-miss to tie at the end.
“Oh, absolutely, we played well,” Newton coach Mike Albright said. “I think we did a great job of not forcing up shots. We weren’t in a hurry, and that’s what we’ve been working on. We had some good looks. Those shots haven’t been falling for us in this stretch where we haven’t been playing real well, but they were falling tonight. We hit some key shots at key times. I thought offensively, we played real well.”
No one played particularly well early, with the two teams combining for five first-quarter field goals and the Vikings holding a slim 7-6 lead at its end. Newton took the lead early in the second quarter on a Ryan Mollette 3 and built a 12-9 lead midway through, but Rutledge tied the score with a 3 and West scored inside to give the lead back to East at 14-12. But Luke Miller-Search answered with a bucket in the paint to tie the score, and after another basket by West gave the Vikings an 18-16 lead with 50 seconds left in the half, Nick Honeycutt hit a late 3 to give the Indians a 19-18 lead at the break.
A Miller-Search putback two minutes into the third gave the Indians some breathing room, and a 3 by Austin Evans midway through the quarter extended the Indians’ lead to six at 26-20. A 3 by Cam Coomes and a series of free throws evened things up again at 28-28 with 33.9 seconds left in the quarter, but a Honeycutt 3 at the buzzer helped Newton maintain control heading into the fourth, 31-28.
Two more 3s by Mollette — the Indians finished with eight of them in the game — gave Newton its biggest lead of the game at 37-30 with roughly six minutes left to play. But the Indians missed a pair of free throws and then the front end of a one-and-one, the beginning of a poor quarter from the free throw line by both teams, and the lead remained six at 38-32 with four minutes to play.
Newton was 3 for 4 from the line entering the fourth but went 3 for 11 over the final eight minutes. Miami East, meanwhile, entered the final quarter 3 for 8 from the line and went 8 for 15 in the fourth.
“To me, it got down to we didn’t make our free throws at the end of the ballgame,” Albright said. “If we make our free throws, that game is on ice by the time it gets to the end and we don’t have to worry about that tip-in.”
Rutledge hit a baseline jumper to make it 38-34, then the Indians missed another pair of free throws with 3:40 remaining — and Brendon Bertsch came off the bench and banked home a 3 to make it a one-point game. West hit a free throw with 1:58 remaining to tie the score, but Mollette sank a pair of free throws to keep the Indians in the lead at 40-38 with 1:34 to play. Another free throw by West cut the lead to one with 1:18 to play — and that’s where things stayed until the closing seconds.
A Newton turnover gave the Vikings a chance to take the lead with 40 seconds left. Kearns got an offensive rebound after a missed shot, but his putback attempt bounced high off the rim — and Rutledge came sailing in to tip it in with one hand to give the Vikings a 41-40 lead with 20 seconds on the clock. West then grabbed a defensive rebound on the other end and — though he was 6 for 14 from the line in the game to that point — knocked down a pair of free throws with 6.6 seconds left to make the score 43-40.
“That was a huge play,” Mack said of Rutledge’s tip-in. “We’d been battling to catch up, we’d even tied it, but we didn’t have the chance to go ahead until that follow-up off of Kearns’ shot. It was just an aggressive play on his part and a smooth finish on his part to make sure it went in. Also, the two free throws Logan hit were big. Those changed the complexion of the game. If he missed both or even just hit one … but now we know what they’re going to have to do. It’s going to have to be a 3, and we were able to slow them down enough — and Austin Rutledge got the rebound there, too, so two key rebounds and a big shot by him at the end.”
“We had guys that were there. It just got down to we were 5-foot-10 and Rutledge was 6-5 on the weak side and got the tip-in,” Albright said.
Newton got had to try a 3 with the East defense focused on the perimeter, and the shot missed the mark, allowing the Vikings to celebrate the come-from-behind win.
West finished with a game-high 18 points and 12 rebounds, including going 7 for 12 from the free throw line in the fourth quarter, while Rutledge finished with 11 points and seven rebounds. Coomes added five points, Justin Brown had four points and two assists, Bertsch had three points and Kearns had two points and three assists.
“It was just a situation where our kids played hungry and desperate for a win down the stretch,” Mack said. “We weren’t as sharp as we’ve been in some other games, but we definitely played like we wanted it, especially at the end of the game. I’m proud of our guys. We’ve been in a tough stretch, and we’re just happy to get the win.”
Mollette led the Indians with 14 points, hitting four of the team’s eight 3s, and Honeycutt added 11 points, including three 3s, and three assists. Miller-Search added six points and nine rebounds, Jackson Riffle had five points and four rebounds and Evans had four points, seven rebounds and three assists.
“I knew we could win this game if we went out and did everything right,” Albright said. “And we led most of the game, too, and we had our chances in the end. We’ve just got to take care of business.”
Newton has a big weekend of CCC games ahead, taking on Covington Friday and Bradford Saturday. Miami East faces Mississinawa Valley — the only team to hand it a CCC loss during its co-championship run last season — Friday and then Lehman on Saturday.
Contact Josh Brown at (937) 552-2132, or follow @TroyDailySports on Twitter.