As the final seconds dwindled off of the clock inside Ohio University’s Convocation Center, the Athens Bulldogs (12-10, 8-2) watched as Nathan Moats, center of the opposing Circleville Tigers (13-8, 5-8), drained the remainder of their season. When the clock hit zero, the Bulldogs were officially eliminated from the District I playoffs. After the Circleville celebration, Athens politely shook hands with the team that defeated them by a final score of 51-45, and walked into the locker room, wondering what could have been.
The Bulldogs built a sizable lead early in the contest, scoring the first seven points of the game. Freshmen starters Ryan Luehrman and Joey Burrow fueled the early offensive explosion, each hitting big shots in the opening minutes. The two freshmen combined for 14 points in the contest and four steals in the first quarter. At the end of the first quarter, Athens led Circleville 14-9.
However, as the game wore on, the Bulldogs defense began to wear out.
The Tigers began to penetrate Athens’ 2-3 zone that had been so suffocating in the first frame; meticulously working the ball down low and taking high-percentage shots from the paint. Circleville erased the Bulldogs’ lead and surged to a one-point lead by halftime.
The Tigers continued feeding off of the momentum into the fourth quarter, building an eight-point advantage. Athens defense, combined with their free-throw shooting percentage of .933, stabilized the tilt enough to hold the Tigers within striking distance.
With their backs against the wall, Athens’ players summoned all of their remaining strength for the fourth, and willed an improbable comeback. Suddenly, the Bulldogs began taking good looks to the basket for points narrowing the margin. A three-pointer from Josh Skinner cut Circleville’s lead to three with just over two minutes remaining.
In the end, however, the effort came up just short. Moats and fellow senior teammate Denzel Amey put a cap on the game with clutch play down the stretch. Amey was able to build the lead with several crucial put-ins. Once the lead was re-established, Amey, who had 19 points and five rebounds, knocked down his last three free throws. This effort, combined with two enormous offensive rebounds from Moats, put the icing on the cake.
The Bulldogs had been defeated in their first district semifinals appearance since 2000. Jeff Skinner was disappointed in the missed opportunity, but was able to reflect fondly on a memorable campaign.
“[The Athens players] are a treat to spend time with, and for them to be able to advance to the district semifinals and be that close, I’m very happy for them,” said the elder Skinner.
This was truly a special winter in The Plains. The Bulldog basketball team was able to fight through a rough mid-season five-game losing streak to finish the year with a winning record and a district semifinal appearance.
“[These players] were very resilient all year,” said Skinner, “I’m very proud to have been associated with them.”