Never a worry for Vikings

LaBrae rallies past Howland to win by one

Tribune Chronicle / Joe Simon Elijah Whiteside of LaBrae drives to the basket Friday night against Howland’s Samari Dean during the Vikings’ 62-61 comeback victory over the Tigers.

LEAVITTSBURG — Senior Aaron Iler insisted he was never worried despite him and the Vikings trailing by 23 points late in the first half of their season opener against Howland.

The rest of LaBrae sure seemed on edge.

Slowly but surely the 2016-2017 Associated Press Division III state poll champions battled back, going on a 20-5 run to start the fourth quarter, and the Vikings made a few big plays down the stretch to rally for a thrilling 62-61 victory over the Tigers.

“To be honest, I really wasn’t worried,” said Iler, who scored twice in the final minute, including the go-ahead lay-up with 13 seconds left. “We had all the momentum, and I had complete faith in my guys. I just knew we were going to close it out.”

The fact that they were even in the game was amazing.

Tribune Chronicle / Joe Simon Howland's Branden Fronzaglio sets up for a shot during the Tigers' 62-61 loss to LaBrae on Friday in Leavittsburg.

Howland’s defense was stifling in the first half, holding LaBrae to 6-of-31 shooting. On offense, the Tigers’ Connor Tamarkin gave the Vikings fits as he consistently weaved in out of of the lane, scoring 13 of his 17 in the first half. His ball handling was the main reason Howland was able to continuously break LaBrae’s full-court press. Things changed in a hurry during the second half.

The Vikings (1-0) trailed by 20 at intermission, but they forced 17 turnovers in the third and fourth quarters. They were still down, 52-38, entering the fourth, but they outscored Howland 24-9 in the final eight minutes.

“We didn’t get into the full-court defense (enough) because we weren’t making shots in the first half,” LaBrae coach Chad Kiser said. “That killed us. We missed some free throws in order to get into our press. We weren’t making shots to get into our press, so they were able to push the ball and get it down the floor. In that fourth quarter, we got some shots and had some dead balls that we were able to take (Tamarkin) out and make other guys handle the ball.”

Tamarkin didn’t score in the fourth quarter as LaBrae used double-teams to deny him the ball. Several different Viking players got involved offensively, and LaBrae took its first lead, 58-57, with 2:19 remaining. That’s when things got interesting.

A Tigers’ offense that went dormant in the second half came to life in the final minutes. Samari Dean scored to put Howland up, 59-58, with 1:18 left. Iler countered with a lay-up for a 60-59 lead. Then it was Howland’s Nathan Barrett, who had a huge game with 11 points off the bench, putting the Tigers back on top with a lay-up. His score set up a controversial finish.

Dean stole the ball on LaBrae’s next possession, and it appeared as if he was fouled intentionally as he attempted to dribble up court, but no foul was called. Logan Kiser, Chad’s son, then grabbed the ball after and passed it to Iler, who laid in the eventual game-winner with 13.7 seconds left.

“Samari’s a tough, strong kid, and I wish he would’ve just held onto the ball,” Howland coach Dan Bubon said, “but when you get pushed with two hands, you expect a foul to be called. But again, the way we were shooting foul shots at that point, you don’t know that we were going to make them. I hope we make ’em. But blowing that lead is the most disappointing part. If we would’ve just executed our press-breaker and finish at the basket, we would’ve kept a double-digit lead all the way until the end.”

In the final seconds, Howland drove the length of the court and got the ball inside, but the shot was blocked, and as players scrambled for the loose ball, time expired. It was another questionable no-call that didn’t go the Tigers’ way.

“You had a couple of close calls down there at the end that could’ve gone either way,” Chad Kiser said. “The officials let the kids play down the stretch, and I think we benefited from that, for sure.”

While the comeback was impressive, coach Kiser and his players admitted they didn’t expect to be in such a position after bringing back five veterans from last year’s team, which went 22-0 in the regular season. Players like Iler (15 points), Tyler Stephens (a game-high 19 points), Logan Kiser (11) and Benton Tennant (nine, eight in the fourth) struggled early on, but kept their poise down the stretch.

“We got five guys back who played a lot of varsity, including two starters, but every one of them is in a different role than they were last year,” Chad Kiser said. “They each stepped up and tried to do a little too much at the beginning offensively. … To squeak out a win and still learn lessons could be huge for us here as we get rolling.”