KETTERING — The play didn’t go as Versailles had drawn it up, but it ended up working out as well as the Tigers could have hoped.
Down 53-52 with 30.9 seconds left in a regional championship game against St. Bernard Roger Bacon, the Versailles boys basketball team called a timeout to try and set up a play. With a spot in the state final four on the line, the Spartan defense clamped down and forced the Tigers to improvise on the court.
They did, finding Kyle Ahrens under the bucket with just 13.2 seconds on the clock for a go-ahead basket that ended up securing Versailles’ spot at state.
“It ended up being a broken play,” Versailles boys basketball coach Scott McEldowney said. “We tried to set something up. They did a good job defending it. Can’t remember if it was (Nick) Campbell or maybe even (Damien) Richard that drove the lane. You know they were playing Kyle so tight that he made a nice basket cut and was able to get two and the foul. It was just an awesome play and guys making plays.”
Advancing to the state tournament has been on the minds of the Tigers for an entire year now, ever since they lost in the regional semifinal one year ago to Cincinnati Summit Country Day.
“It’s an amazing feeling. We’re really excited … I’m speechless,” senior Chad Winner said after a long pause. “The first day after we lost to Summit last year, me and Kyle were in the gym. We set our goal that we want to get to state, and we want to win.”
Versailles (22-5) will get that chance starting with a regional semifinal game against Leavittsburg Labrae (24-3) at 2 p.m. Thursday at the Jerome Schottenstein Center in Columbus. The winner of that game will play either Ironton (23-2) or Ottawa-Glandorf (24-3) for the Division III state championship at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at the Schottenstein Center.
“It’s an awesome feeling,” senior Jacob Heitkamp said. “Last year we got real close, and we ended up losing to the state runner up. This year it feels good to pull it off.
“Very rewarding. The whole team’s put in so much time. It just feels great to finally be here.”
It wasn’t easy for Versailles to make it this far, advancing to the state final four for the first time since it finished as the Division III state runner up in 2004.
Versailles was just 5-4 in Midwest Athletic Conference play this season, tying for fourth place in the league.
“They’ve kept their feet underneath them this whole time,” McEldowney said. “There hasn’t been an overabundance of TV stations come in and interview us or anything like that. We kind of flew under the radar. We were a game above .500 in a very tough MAC league, we struggled there in the middle of the season, and a lot of people were just writing us off. Once we got to the tournament, we had something to play for again, and one by one we picked them off. It’s a great feeling.”
Playing against Roger Bacon, who was ranked seventh in the state by The Associated Press, Versailles knew it was in for a tough challenge.
The Tigers got off to a fast start, but so did the Spartans.
After Ahrens began the game’s scoring, Roger Bacon answered to tie it at 2-2. Then Winner made a 3-pointer, and Roger Bacon went down the floor and made one, also, tying the game at 5-5.
Campbell scored to put Versailles back up 7-5, and Roger Bacon made another 3-pointer, taking an 8-7 lead with 4:56 left in the opening period.
From there, Versailles went on a 9-0 run to end the quarter with a 16-8 lead. It began with a Winner 3-pointer on the ensuing possession to make it 10-7. Then Ahrens and Evan Phlipot drew fouls with Ahrens making both of his and Phlipot making two of them twice.
Even with the 9-0 run, Roger Bacon was far from out of the game. The Spartans scored nine of the first 11 points of the second quarter, only broken up by a pair of free throws from Richard, to cut Versailles’ lead to a single point, 18-17.
After a Versailles timeout to try and regroup, Roger Bacon continued its assault, connecting on a 3-pointer to give the Spartans a 20-18 lead with 4:04 left in the second quarter.
With just under three minutes left in the half, Phlipot knotted the game back up with a basket. Then less than 20 seconds later, the Tigers regained the lead as Ahrens scored and drew a foul for a three-point play, giving Versailles a 23-20 lead.
With baskets from Ahrens and Heitkamp and a Roger Bacon basket and free throw in between, Versailles went into halftime up 27-23.
Roger Bacon continued to fight back into the game in the third quarter as the Tigers tried to stave off the Spartans with baskets from Ahrens and Richard. Roger Bacon tied the game back up with 3:31 left in the quarter and then took the lead 22 seconds later.
On the ensuing possession, Versailles regained a 37-36 lead as Winner made a 3-pointer. With a pair of baskets from Phlipot in the period’s final minutes, Versailles was clinging to a 41-40 lead.
It was less than a minute into the fourth quarter when Roger Bacon made a 3-pointer to take back the lead, 43-41. Versailles tied the game back up with a Richard basket, but Roger Bacon regained the lead again on the ensuing possession.
Another basket each form Phlipot and Richard kept the game close, but Roger Bacon held a four-point lead with the clock winding down.
“It was scary with four minutes left, but we came together, and we believed the whole time,” Winner said.
Versailles caught a break when Winner was credited with a basket on a Roger Bacon goaltending call, pulling the Tigers to within 51-49. Then on the other end of the court, another call went Versailles’ way as Campbell drew a charge with just 1:29 left in the game.
With the ball back and down by two points, Versailles found Winner open for a 3-pointer, reclaiming a 52-51 lead for the Tigers with 1:06 remaining.
On their next possession, the Spartans drew a foul and made both free throws to retake the lead, 53-52, with 45.9 seconds left.
Versailles took the ball down the court and used a timeout to set up a play, which resulted in Ahrens’ broken-play basket.
In the final 13.2 seconds of game clock, Roger Bacon used four of its timeouts to try to set something up.
“The last few was a little nerve-racking, but the first couple, I was kind of glad because our kids were totally exhausted, so it actually gave them a chance to refocus and try to set up our defense and what we wanted to do going into that,” McEldowney said.
After a pair of back-to-back timeouts with 6.1 seconds left, Roger Bacon attempted a pass toward the basket, but the ball bounced off the rim. Ahrens came away with it and was fouled. He made both free throws, putting Versailles up 56-53 with 3.5 seconds left.
Following another Roger Bacon timeout, Versailles fouled after the inbound pass as it had fouls to give before the Spartans could get in bonus. The Tigers playing good zone defense and not fouling early proved very beneficial late in the game when they went to a more-aggressive man defense, McEldowney said.
After the foul, and another Roger Bacon timeout, the Spartans had one final chance with 1.8 seconds left. The desperation 3-pointer missed, though, and Versailles won 56-53.
“It’s hard to believe,” McEldowney said. “I’ve been emotional this whole week about getting back here. We really felt like we could get to the finals, but we knew it would be tough whether it was Bacon or Summit. We knew we’d have to play a really good game and take it to another level to get to state. To actually accomplish that and let it all soak in now that we’re going to Columbus is just awesome.”
Ahrens led Versailles with 18 points in the regional championship victory. Also for the Tigers, Winner scored 14 points, Phlipot scored 12, Richard scored eight, Campbell scored two, and Heitkamp scored two.
Following the game, the Versailles student section lined up along the end of the court to embrace the Tiger players as they cut down the net. Following all the post-game festivities, Winner expressed the team’s appreciation for the fans.
“I just want to give a shout-out to all the fans, all the amazing support they’ve had and the students … it’s awesome to play for a community like Versailles,” he said.