Fuller’s clutch free throws send West Union past Ripley and into first place tie –
By Mark Carpenter –
Photo by Zach Daniel –
Hungry wolves. Disguised as Dragons, a group of hungry wolves descended on Ripley High School on Tuesday night. At least that is how head coach Greg Himes referred to his West Union Dragons after they had claimed one of the biggest wins in recent school history, a heart-pounding, down-to-the -wire, 38-36 win over the host Blue Jays, a win that catapulted the Dragons into a first place tie in the big school division of the Southern Hills Athletic Conference.
“Our kids really got a chip on their shoulders when they were voted to finish last in the conference,” said Coach Himes after the big win. “I told someone that we might not be the hardest working team in practice, but one thing about it is that when you throw the ball up, it looks like a bunch of hungry wolves going after meat.”
“Our style is to get it up and down the floor but as we showed tonight, we can play any way we need to. Hats off to Ripley, their kids play so hard and this game could have went either way.”
If you had a collective Dragon roar come up from near the Ohio River about 9 o’clock on Tuesday night, it was the wild cheers of the large West Union fan contingent on hand, as they watched senior Eli Fuller calmly sink a pair of free throws with 1.9 seconds left on the clock, after he was fouled on the other end while grabbing a defensive rebound, and after a Ripley desperation heave was off the mark, the Dragons had improved to 11-3 on the season (7-2 in the SHAC) and picked up their eighth consecutive win.
Ripley is one of the hardest venues for opposing teams to deal with especially on the offensive end, where the depth perception behind each basket is very different from what they are used to. For the Dragons, offense was certainly at a premium on Tuesday, but their tenacious defense guaranteed that the Blue Jays were going to have the same issues finding the bottom of the net.
It was the home team, however, who struck first, scoring the game’s first six points and holding the Dragons scoreless until a Bowan Tomlin three-pointer at the 3:55 mark of the first quarter. Garrett Vogler followed that up with a baseline jumper and the Ripley lead was sliced to one.
The Jays then got back to back baskets from Ryan Harney and Landon Rigdon to go up 10-5, and a very rapid opening period ended with a Tomlin basket that left the Dragons down by three.
That deficit quickly vanished in the first two minutes of the second stanza as the Dragons reeled off an 8-0 run, getting pair of treys from the red-hit Tomlin and a bucket off a well-designed out of bounds play from Elijah McCarty. That spurt put West Union up 15-10, but the Blue Jays had a quick response, coming back with eight straight of their own, culminating with a basket by Landon Dearing that put the home team in front 18-15 with 2:07 left in the first half.
“You have to love the way Bowan plays, he give us so much,” said Coach Himes.
Back came the Dragons. A nice baseline drive and score by McCarty was followed by a basket inside by Fuller to give the lead back to the visitors. The Jays have one of the best point guards in the conference, and a recent Naval Academy appointee in Brian Dunn, and the senior drove the lane and scored in the final seconds of the first half to send his team to the locker room with a 20-19 lead.
Another Dunn bucket began the third stanza, followed by two Ryan Rothwell free throws and another Fuller score that again flipped the board to the West Union side at 23-22. The back and forth excitement continued as Dunn scored again and Harney hit a three to make it 27-23 Ripley, and the third quarter ended with the Jays still up four, 29-25.
In the past West Union teams were not solid fourth quarter performers, but this year’s squad is different and they showed that immediately on Tuesday when the Dragons scored on their first four possessions of the final period, getting baskets from Rothwell and McCarty, then two free throws each from Fuller and Rothwell to grab a 33-30 advantage.
With both teams amping up the defense, the final five minutes of action were exciting and nail-biting, with neither team able to pull away. With 5”15 to play a long three by Harney tied the game and a layup by Josiah Staggs gave Ripley a 35-33 lead with 4:39 to go. A McCArty free throw pulled West Union within one and a Dunn free throw put the Jays back up by two.
With 2:55 remaining, a basket by Rothwell tied the game at 36 and set up an ending that will stick with Dragon fans for awhile.
With 50 seconds left, the Ripley defense forced a West Union turnover and Ripley coach Rex Woodward had his team hang on to the ball for a possible game winning shot. The Dragons’ defense did an outstanding job of pressuring the ball and keeping the Ripley offense away from the rim and all the home team could manage was an off balance three-point shot by Dearing that bounced high off the rim and into the hand of the leaping Fuller, who was fouled as he grabbed the ball with 1.9 seconds left.
The two teams marched to the West Union end where Fuller calmly sank the first free throw to give his team the lead. After a timeout, the senior hit the second shot to make it 38-36. The Jays inbounded the ball and could only get a long half court attempt by Harney that was wide left and the Dragons celebrated the jump to a first place tie and a hard-fought two-point triumph.
“There was a lot going through my mind but we practice free throws so much every day and I had a lot of confidence going in,” said the man of the hour. “Free throws are just kind of second nature but there were definitely a lot of nerves running through. Once I hit the first shot, I knew the second one was going in.”
“I have never won a game at the end like that so I will certainly remember this one.”
“Eli has really started to pick up his game lately,” says Coach Himes. “He come sin every day and works hard and he has done what we have asked of him, he is such a ‘team’ guy. He has gotten so much more aggressive every time he comes in, he knows it is time for us to start making a run.”
With the defenses ruling, only two players reached double figures in the game, one of them being West Union’s Bowan Tomlin, who led the Dragons with 11 points. Elijah McCarty added 9, with Fuller and Rothwell each tallying 8.
Ripley was paced by Brian Dunn’s 12 points, with Harney adding 8 and Jaki Royal 6.
Now with their name listed at the top of the SHAC big school standings, the Dragons will look to maintain it on Friday night as they host the Whiteoak Wildcats on Homecoming Night. Then it will be a week off until the North Adams Green Devils come to the county seat, looking to avenge a Dec. 30 loss in the finals of the McDonald’s Classic.
7 12 6 13 –38
10 10 9 7 –36
W. Union (38): Tomlin 11, McCarty 9, Fuller 8, Rothwell 8, Vogler 2
Ripley (36): Dunn 12, Harney 8, Royal 6, Staggs 4, Rigdon 2, Dearing 2, Fyffe 2
W. Union (3): Tomlin 3
Ripley (2): Harney 2