Ironton answers preseason challenge
ATHENS, Ohio -- Ironton High School boys basketball coach Mark LaFon and his players heard the rumblings well before the 2012-13 season began Dec. 4 with an 85-50 home win over Lucasville Valley.
"Coach, you've got a team that can go to the state," LaFon said Saturday night after the Fighting Tigers pulled away in the fourth period to beat Oak Hill, 66-49, in the Ohio Division III regional championship game at Ohio University's Convocation Center.
That victory secured a berth in the Ohio State Tournament scheduled Thursday through Saturday at Ohio State's Value City Arena in Columbus. The Fighting Tigers will meet Ottawa-Glandorf in the first semifinal Thursday at 10:45 a.m.
LaFon said the team, led by the seniors, answered what amounted to a preseason challenge by him and fans.
"I flat told them early before the season -- I don't remember just when -- if we don't win the regional and make the state tournament, we've failed," LaFon said. "We're not failures, we just failed in our goal. Now, what are we going to do about it?
"To the man, we embraced it. To have a group like this and not go to the state tournament would be a disappointment. This group of seniors let me challenge them and I sure challenged them."
LaFon's senior class includes guard Zac Carter, who pumped in a game-high 34 points Saturday night, Trevor White, Trey Fletcher, Josh Glover, Darrius Boykin, Aaron Stephens and Jalen Schweickart.
This is the third straight year Ironton ended Oak Hill's season. The previous two came in district play.
The Oaks made the game tight for most of the night as there were six lead changes and three ties. Fletcher got into foul trouble in each half. He picked up his second foul with 3:07 left in the first period and went to the bench for the rest of the half. In the third quarter, he got his third foul with 4:22 left and took a seat on the bench again for an extended time.
Carter, as he's done all season, and White stepped up. Carter, the Southeast District Division III player of the year, hit for 24 second-half points and White added 14 and 12 rebounds to make up for Fletcher's absence.
"One guy who stepped up -- Lordy be -- Trevor White. If he didn't save us, I don't know what would have happened," LaFon said.
White said the team didn't panic when Fletcher went out. Plus, he knew Ironton had someone special who thrived under pressure.
"I just had to pick it up," White said. "Zac ... I've seen him do that all my life. I played AAU ball with him. He doesn't like to lose."
Carter accounted for 13 of Ironton's 27 points in the third period. He connected on three of four from three-point range in the second half.
"We felt we wore them down. That's why I started going to the basket instead of taking outside shots," Carter said. "I'm pretty good at reading defenses. I just had to be more aggressive."
Oak Hill's trademarks under coach Norm Persin are good defense and patience on offense. Some observers believed Persin would attempt to slow the pace against Ironton, but that wasn't the case. The Oaks (22-5) actually took 18 shots from behind the arc (making five).
"I thought our pace was great," Persin said. "Everybody says Oak Hill's going to come in here and stall. No we don't, we just look for good shots. I thought we took great shots all night. When they got up seven (49-42 after three), we had to change up things we were doing, go at a faster pace."
LaFon said it boiled down to the Fighting Tigers getting past a shaky start and playing their up-tempo game.
"Early we took quick shots. We were excited and couldn't get out of our own way," LaFon said. "All the things we could do wrong we did. Zac started attacking the basket. Trevor scored and they had to back off Zac. "When he does his job of running the offense, he's hard to stop."
State tournament tickets go on sale to the public at 7 p.m. Monday in the Conley Sports Center in Ironton.