COLUMBUS — In a game between Mid-Ohio Athletic Conference rivals on Wednesday night, the Highland Scots got the last laugh.
The Scots took on the Marion Pleasant Spartans in a Division III Central District Semifinal at the Fairgrounds Coliseum, and came away with a 49-43 victory. The Scots, who had lost four of their last five meetings with the Spartans, lost the regular-season matchup with Pleasant, 47-45.
“This is the first time we’ve beaten Pleasant in my career,” said Highland senior Ryan Barnett. “This feels great.”
In Wednesday’s game, both teams were evenly matched once again, but Highland’s depth seemed to be the deciding factor. The Scots (18-3) got a solid performance from both their starters and the bench, while the Spartans’ bench produced just one point. Barnett, a starter, led Highland with 11 points, while Wayde Looker came off the bench to chip in 10 points. Leading scorers Zach Hilborn and Justin Howard, scored eight and six points, respectively, for the Scots.
“We knew this would be a tough game; it is just a good matchup,” said Pleasant coach Steve Freshour. “Both teams have pretty good athletes that want to win; both teams were loaded with seniors that don’t want to lose. We knew coming it, as they did, that it was going to be a battle from start to finish.
“(Looker) had a couple of big games for them during the year, but he definitely stepped up big for them tonight, no question. His offense made them harder to guard. They’ve got three outstanding perimeter players that start, and when he gives them that kind of boost off the bench, it is a bonus for them.”
After trading buckets to start the game, Pleasant (18-4) jumped out to a first-quarter lead behind an 11-2 run. Looker hit a jumper for Highland’s only bucket in that stretch, and the Scots found themselves trailing, 16-8, as the quarter wound down. Looker hit another jumper with three seconds left to make it a six-point game after one.
“I’m not usually one of the high scorers on the team, but when I get my chances, I try to capitalize on them,” said Looker. “At that time, we needed some baskets. I shoot those a lot during practice, and I guess all that practice finally paid off in a big game.”
Looker’s shot set the Scots off on a 20-4 run as the second quarter began. Howard scored three buckets in that stretch, and Barnett and Hilborn each hit a 3-pointer. Pleasant, which turned the ball over four straight times during that run, found itself down, 28-20, with 2:35 to play. The Spartans, however, came back with two scores of their own, and trimmed the lead to five, 28-23, going into the locker rooms.
“We didn’t score much in that first quarter and they did,” said Highland coach Mike Hoyng. “They hit some shots that were a little uncharacteristic, I thought, but they made them. We came out in the second quarter and went to our press. I thought once we got it going, they made some mistakes and we capitalized with some good shots. That got the game going in our way.”
Playing from behind, the Spartans turned to leading scorer Cory Snyder in the second half. Pleasant pulled within one, 31-30, behind seven points from Snyder, but Highland responded with a 7-2 spurt to end the quarter comfortably ahead, 38-32.
Pleasant wasn’t finished, however. The teams traded points over the first six minutes of the fourth quarter, but the Spartans couldn’t get any closer than three at any point. Down 44-41 with 48.6 seconds to go, Highland took care of the basketball and Pleasant was forced to foul.
“I basically challenged the team,” Hoyng said. “I said, ‘Look, we’ve come this far. We don’t want to let it down now. Let’s go, get it done. Let’s finish the job.’”
Looker, who had missed the front end of a 1-and-1 earlier in the quarter, hit a pair of free throws to push the lead to five, and Barnett went 3-of-4 from the line in the final 21 seconds to seal the 49-43 victory.
“I’m a pretty good free-throw shooter and I knew what I needed to do,” said Looker. “I didn’t do it on the first one, but I made the next two. I just kept thinking about how we’ve come so far as a senior class. I didn’t want to let my team down. This was a huge game for us; we will never get another shot at beating (Pleasant).”
Pleasant got 16 points — 12 in the second half — and seven rebounds from Snyder, and Brad Harrah added nine points, five rebounds, four assists and two blocks. The Spartans outrebounded the Scots, 24-17, and had one more assist (9-8).
“We knew it was going to be a tough, hard-fought game. We just had to be tougher than they were,” said Hoyng. “Pleasant is a physical team, and they play hard. We got exactly what I thought we would get. I felt our kids did a great job down the stretch of taking care of the ball, giving us a chance to win.”
With the victory, Highland advances to the Division III Central District Final for the second straight season. An underdog no more, the Scots will face No. 5 seed Grandview Heights, which was a 64-38 winner over No. 2 seed Madison Plains on Wednesday night.
The Scots will have some time to prepare for the Bobcats — a week to be exact. The game will be played on Thursday, March 12, at 9 p.m. at the coliseum.
“(Our previous experience) will help a lot with our nerves and confidence,” said Barnett. “We’ve been there before and we kind of know what to expect. ... (The week off) will help us a lot to get our legs back underneath us. It gives us a chance to catch our breath. Plus, we always seem to play better coming off a long stretch, so hopefully that will carry on.”