MINFORD — The say the hardest challenge to overcome in sports is beating the same team twice.
The task only becomes tougher when the winning team in the first matchup has to travel for the second contest.
None of that mattered to Wheelersburg on Friday.
With a piece of the SOC III title at stake, the Pirates (16-4, 8-1 SOC III) went toe-to-toe with Minford, just like they did the first time.
Also reminiscent of the first meeting was the end result. Wheelersburg came out on top by a 67-64 margin — highlighted by a 37-point outing from Devon Lattimore — to complete the season sweep and earn a share of the SOC III crown.
“I thought it was really impressive how our guys stayed in the moment and continued to grind through those tough times,” Pirates’ head coach Alex Prater said. “Both games were well played by both teams. Minford very easily could’ve won this one tonight and they could’ve won at our place. But credit to our guys for staying in the moment and finding a way to get a win.”
The game opened with fireworks as Minford’s Troy Rhoades knocked down a pair of 3’s to spark an 8-2 run in the first four minutes. From there, Bennett Kayser finished off the period with eight points of his own to put the Falcons out to an 18-11 lead.
Wheelersburg knew it needed a sense of urgency in the second quarter, and Lattimore provided that spark.
On the team’s first Pirate possession, Lattimore connected from beyond the arc with 7:01 left. Back on defense, he then deflected a pass from Rhoades and soared down the paint before finishing off the glass. Just 1:20 into the second quarter, Lattimore’s personal 5-0 run had cut the deficit back to just two points.
And the senior didn’t stop there.
“[Lattimore] made some big steals that sparked us,” Prater said. “We were struggling in the first quarter, but he made some huge defensive plays and was able to knock down some shots.”
While Minford, fueled by an 11-point half from Myles Montgomery, answered back and pushed its lead to six, Wheelersburg threw a counter-punch.
Lattimore knocked down a triple to trim it back to 22-19, and after Lattimore and Landon McGraw exchanged baskets, the game was all knotted up at 25-25 with 2:36 left in the half.
Later, and once again trailing at 30-25, the Pirates ended the half on a 7-0 run in the final minute to carry a 32-30 lead into the intermission.
“Big games are games of runs,” Prater said. “Minford is a great team and we knew they weren’t going to go away. We kept talking during timeouts about how we were still in a great position.”
It looked as though Wheelersburg was going to run away in the second half, but Minford (13-4, 5-3 SOC III) wasn’t going to let that happen.
After Lattimore and Braylon Rucker connected with nylon, extending the Pirates’ lead to seven, Minford came storming back, exchanging baskets with ‘Burg to cut the deficit back to three.
However, Lattimore stayed on fire throughout the frame, scoring eight points to bring his scoring total to 25 and, more importantly, keep his team ahead 46-42 heading into the final quarter.
The final eight minutes saw the two teams go blow-for-blow nonstop.
With Wheelersburg holding a 50-44 lead early in the quarter, Minford’s Myles Montgomery drove to the basket and finished through contact, bringing the deficit back to three. Not to be outdone, Wheelersburg’s Hunter Bivens knocked down a corner triple to push the lead back to six with 5:36 left to play.
Wheelersburg then held a 57-51 lead with 3:26 to go, looking to put the game away. However, Minford took advantage of some missed Pirate shots, and Kayser and Rhoades scored on back-to-back possessions to bring it back to 57-55 with 2:36 left.
Minford continued to attack offensively, and it never had more of an opportunity than it did with 46.5 second left.
Kayser drew a foul in the paint on Lattimore, who had 37 points at the time, giving Lattimore his fifth foul. With his team trailing by three, Kayser knocked down both free throws to make it a 65-64 tally.
Following two free throws from the Pirates to answer, Minford had one final chance to tie the game
With 15.2 seconds to to play, the Falcons had the ball, once again trailing by three. Minford turned to Montgomery for some late-game heroics, but both of his attempts from long range fell short — the second one missing as the final buzzer sounded, sealing a win for Wheelersburg and a share of the SOC III title.
“A lot of people doubted us, but we knew we were going to have a great season,” Lattimore said after the game. “All we had to do was step up. This win means a lot to us.”
Following Lattimore’s 37-point outburst for Wheelersburg was McGraw, who finished with 15 points, 11 of which came in the first half. Braylon Rucker also contributed seven points for the Pirates.
“I’m proud of [Lattimore]. We’re all proud of him,” McGraw said of Lattimore. “Without him, we don’t know where we’d be.”
The Falcons were led in scoring by Montgomery, who finished with 26 points and grabbed six rebounds. Kayser ended the night with 24 points, 10 rebounds, and three blocks, while Troy Rhoades contributed 13 points of his own, knocking down three triples.
While the tournament draw awaits on Sunday, both teams still have some important outings left on their regular season slate.
Minford looks to get back on track and end the season strong, starting with a date against Portsmouth on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Wheelersburg looks to cement their status as the SOC III champion, hoting West on Friday. A win means an outright league title.
“West is very well-coached and they play extremely hard. We’ve got a huge challenge to win this thing outright,” Prater said. “I told the kids that I’m not very good at sharing. We’d like to have the title all to ourselves. We’re going to work really hard, because all of our focus is on Friday, making sure we take care of business and get that league title back to Wheelersburg where it belongs.”