While there might not have been the same number of fans in the stands, it was business as usual on the court in the Cardington-Mount Gilead rivalry on Friday night.
When the two Morrow County rivals took the court for a boys’ basketball game, it wound up being a hard-fought contest where the Pirates had to fight off their opponents throughout the game to claim a 70-66 decision.
“I love it because it doesn’t take much to get them motivated,” said Cardington coach Mark DeLaney after being on the winning side in his first game coaching against the Indians. “You can throw the records out the window. We played hard and Mount Gilead played hard. It was just a great high school basketball game.”
The Pirates were helped by a fast start. Four points by both Zach Lester and Trey Brininger and a basket by Avery Harper staked Cardington to a 10-0 lead. Five straight points by Paul Butterman cut that advantage in half, but Cardington finished the quarter strongly. With a 12-7 lead, the team got back-to-back three-pointers by Mason White and Lester to take their advantage to an 18-7 margin and they would still be up 18-9 at the end of the quarter.
“That’s the moral of the story again,” said Indian coach Dan Strasser. “You can’t start off in a 10-0 hole. I’m proud of how they fought back, but every possession counts. We just have to grow from it.”
Jackson Huffer got the Indians back into the game in the second quarter. The senior guard scored nine points in the first four minutes of the period to bring his team within a 22-20 score. However, the Pirates finished the period on a 10-5 run, with both White and Lester hitting threes, to hold a 32-25 advantage going into the half.
“All rivalry games are tough,” said Lester, who led Cardington with 22 points on the night, 12 of which he scored in the first half. “You just have to step up. My teammates got me the ball. It’s really a team effort.”
A three-pointer by Lester, as well as a basket and a free throw by Nate Hickman, gave the Pirates a 38-27 lead early in the third quarter. However, MG would fight their way back into the game. Five straight points by Elijah Chafin trimmed the Pirate lead to a six-point margin. Then, with Cardington leading 45-37 with 4:16 to go in the period, the Indians got one bucket from Chafin and three straight by Huffer to tie things up at 45.
“Jackson’s a dog’ he’s a bulldog,” said Strasser. “He’s going to fight and scrap. I love the way he played tonight. The competitive spirit he has is something we all should have.”
Brininger connected from deep to reclaim the lead for his team, but a Chafin bucket ended the quarter with Mount Gilead within one at 48-47.
The teams were still closely knit halfway into the fourth quarter, with Cardington holding a 54-52 lead, but nine straight Pirate points would put the Indians in trouble. Lester scored four in that stretch, while both Brininger and Hickman added baskets and White scored from the line once.
However, MG would fight back in the final 90 seconds to stay within striking distance. A Chafin three made it 63-55 and then he and Huffer combined to make six straight free throws to bring the Indians within a 66-61 score with 23 seconds left.
While Chafin would score five more points down the stretch, the Pirates would be able to hold their lead, as both Lester and White connected twice from the free throw line to preserve the win.
DeLaney felt that Lester’s big night was a good thing for his team.
“It’s a huge confidence builder,” he said. “Not only for Zach, but for the team. When we have another 20-point scorer, it’s good for us.”
The coach also was pleased with the performance of his bench players, as they were able to make contributions while he rested some of his starters.
“I thought our reserves played good minutes,” he said. “Legend Williamson did good things and Garrett Thompson and Gabe McConnell gave our guards time to rest in the fourth.”
Lester finished with 22, while Brininger finished with 18, White had 12 and Hickman scored 10. For Mount Gilead, Huffer had a game-high 28 points, while Chafin scored 25. Strasser noted that he was very happy with the performance of his freshman point guard.
“Being a point guard at the varsity level, no matter what age or grade, is tough,” he said. “I’m really proud of the development Elijah has had so far. The way he plays point guard is incredible. Being a coach is a lot easier when you have a good point guard.”
After his team claimed victory in their first league game of 2021, Lester already is seeing an improvement over everything 2020 brought.
“It’s good,” he said of the new year. “It’s definitely better than 2020 as a year in general.”
Rob Hamilton can be reached at 419-946-3010, ext. 1807. Connect with him on Twitter at @SportsMCS