Brock Netter, Staff Writer
Southern Ohio Sports Authority is presented by OhioHealth.
ATHENS — For the final three minutes and thirty-two seconds of Thursday’s contest, Fairfield Union’s defense was, in a word, smothering.
The Falcons didn’t allow Tri-Valley to sink a single field goal during that time while ripping off a 7-0 run to snag a lead — and, eventually, a victory from the jaws of defeat — in a Division II regional semifinal at Ohio University.
The win, by a 37-33 tally, sent Fairfield Union into its first-ever Elite 8.
“Anytime that you get into an Elite 8, things have to go well, but you also need a lucky bounce,” Fairfield Union coach Travis Shaeffer said. “What makes me most proud is that if we went through a minute and a half stretch where we didn’t score last year, we wouldn’t have won. But to see guys step up and make grown up moves and keeping the energy alive was great to see. That’s maturity and a level of leadership that has gotten us where we are now.”
The opening eight minutes were all about FU’s Caleb Redding and TV’s Terrell Darden. The two scored all 14 points in the first quarter, but Darden had the final bucket plus a foul to put the Scotties ahead 8-6 after one.
While Redding did all the heavy lifting early, he got a boost from Ronnie Rowley and Caleb Schmelzer in the second as they combined for a 7-1 run to put the Falcons ahead 13-9.
Darden later scored to tie the game at 13-13 before TV’s Jayden Walker and FU’s Cole Johnson traded buckets to end the half with the game knotted at 15-15.
After sitting on the bench with three fouls in the first half, Ted Harrah made his presence felt quickly in the third. He scored on a rebound and put-back, then recorded a block that led to a Schmelzer bucket to put the Falcons ahead 19-15 midway through.
“Tri-Valley and Coach (Todd) McLoughlin deserve a lot of credit for the way they played defensively,” Shaeffer said. “They’re long, athletic and incredibly quick. We’re different. We like to slow the pace down and it’s hard to play a team like that and not turn the ball over like we did. Yeah it was frustrating, but our kids just stayed with it, weathered those early storms and made the next play.”
TV’s Max Lyall then connected on a deep triple, only to be countered by a bucket from Rowley, to keep the Falcons ahead. Darden then scored again before TV’s Jack Winland split a pair of free throws to tie the game at 21-21.
Isaac Schmelzer and Brennen Rowles then each hit two free throws, and Rowley connected on a tough bucket, to keep the Falcons ahead 27-24 heading to the final eight minutes.
To begin the fourth, Caleb Schmelzer scored off a lob pass to give the Falcons their biggest lead of the game at 29-24.
“Our help defense defense was pretty atrocious the first time we played them back in January,” Shaeffer said. “The biggest thing for us was staying in front and keeping the ball high. OU is a tough place to shoot, so we’ll get out to the shooters when we can. It was a bit of a gamble, but one that ultimately worked and frustrated them when we had guys cutting off the driving lane.”
However, Darden and the Scotties weren’t going away.
Darden powered his way for a bucket before Jayden Walker scored off a steal. When Walker recorded a second steal, it led to two free throws from Darden to cap a 6-0 run, putting TV ahead 30-29 with 4:30 to play.
The Scotties kept their lead until 46 seconds left, which is when Caleb Schmelzer scored through contact. When he hit the ensuing foul shot, it gave the Falcons a 35-33 lead.
That basket led to Harrah icing the game from the charity stripe. The big fella knocked down a pair of free throws with less than three seconds to play, officially punching the Falcons’ Elite 8 tickets.
“Ted is a guy that come a long way with his maturity,” Shaeffer said. “He had his struggles, but kept his head int he game and made plays when he needed to. He exemplified not wanting to let his guys down and that comes back to the bond within the team.”
Statistically, Caleb Schmelzer finished with 11 points for the Falcons, followed by seven points for Rowley. Harrah also chipped in with six points and six rebounds.
Fairfield Union now advances to play in a Division II regional final at 6 p.m. on Saturday at Ohio University’s Convocation Center against Bishop Ready.
“We just get back to work with our normal routine and keep things the way we have all season,” Shaeffer said. “These guys have embraced the type of work it takes to make it as far as they have, even the most mundane things. At the end of the day, we want to have a chance in the fourth quarter to make a play and win, and we’ll give it everything we have to make it happen.”