RUSSIA – Family loyalties were divided and neighbors found themselves on opposite sides of this intra-county border battle between Versailles and Russia Saturday evening.
The highly charged fan bases rooted on both teams until finally the host Raiders prevailed 54-51 in an intensely fought game.
The Tigers got off to a slow start. Russia quickly jumped out to a 5-0 lead until a triple by Brett McEldowney and a basket by Justin Ahrens tied the score. But the Raiders scored the next seven points, and during the run Justin Ahrens picked up his second personal foul, both offensive.
With the home fans howling with delight over the developments, Versailles stepped up its defensive pressure and got a field goal from Connor Custenborder and a three from Alex Wendel to bring the Tigers within three at the quarter break, 13-10.
“Seems like coming out of the gate,” Versailles boys basketball coach Scott McEldowney said, “this has always been a backyard rivalry, a big game, seemed like they brought more energy. It took us a while to get going for whatever reason. I don’t know if we felt, like, too confident. That we were going to come in here and things were going to be good for us or what. It took us a little while to wake up from that. We did bounce back and were able to compete pretty well in stretches, but it’s part of growing up.”
The teams traded buckets in the second period. Russia managed to stretch out to a four-point lead on two occasions, but the Tigers quickly answered back. Versailles got a great boost off the bench by junior Austin Knapke, who connected on two triples late in the period to help the Tigers’ offensive effort.
With just 6.6 seconds remaining Knapke converted the first of two free throws to tie the game at 23. After Russia got the rebound Brett McEldowney stole the ball and quickly drove to the hoop for a demonstrative two-handed slam at the buzzer to give the Tigers a 25-23 lead at the half.
The good momentum swing going into half time was short lived. On the first possession of the second half Justin Ahrens was called for his third offensive foul of the game. The Raiders then scored the first five points of the period to take a 28-25 lead.
The teams traded field goals but an alarming trend was developing. Versailles would only shoot 2 of 7 from the free throw line for the quarter. This would be the main reason the Tigers trailed 35-34 going into the fourth.
“We kind of hashed things out in there,” Coach McEldowney said. “You’ve got to execute better. I thought the defense was decent, solid enough … I think the two, free throws and unforced turnovers, have got to go down … guys we shot 53 percent … we’re just not getting enough opportunities. People are going to be able to slow you down. You’re not always going to be able to speed them up. You’ve got to be able to execute a lot better. Those possessions we’re losing are tough to take and are double or triple in a lower possession game.”
The Tigers started out on the right foot when Justin Ahrens made a trey to open the scoring to put them in front 37-35. The teams traded hoops. Justin Ahrens picked up his fourth offensive foul with 3:06 left and went to the bench but quickly returned. He was fouled moments later attempting a three and converted the first two free throws then rebounded his miss and was fouled scoring the lay-in. This tied the game at 46.
The Raiders went to the line six times in the last 1:33 and converted all six. The Tigers were 3 of 6 in the period.
Versailles fought to the very end as Wendel hit a 3-pointer with 2.9 seconds left to cut the margin to 54-51, but that is where the score would stay.
Josh York led the Raider attack with 11 points, and Jake Gariety and Dylan Cordonnier each added 10. The Tigers were paced by Justin Ahrens 16 points with Brett McEldowney adding 10.
The victory raised the Russia record to 14-3 on the season. Versailles dropped to 11-5 overall with a 5-1 Midwestern Athletic Conference mark. The Tigers visit Coldwater Friday evening.
The Versailles junior varsity advanced its record to 9-7 by defeating the Russia reserves 46-41. Russia’s junior varsity is now 15-2.
Versailles – 51
Knapke 9, K McEldowney 3, Wendel 8, J Ahrens 16, B McEldowney 10, Custenborder 2, AJ Ahrens 3.
Russia – 54
Counts 7, C Monnin 3, T Monnin 7, Cordonnier 10, Gariety 10, Tebbe 6, York 11.
3-pointers: Vers: 7 (Knapke 2, Wendel 2, B McEldowney 2, J Ahrens); Rus: 5(Counts, C Monnin, Cordonnier, Gariety 2).
Free throws: Vers: 10-21; Rus: 13-16.