Vinton County coach Matt Combs knew the significance of Friday’s championship game at Athens High School.
McAfee Gymnasium is one of the few places in the Ohio Division of the Tri-Valley Conference where it has proven difficult to win consistently.
Combs wore a look of happiness and relief after the Vikings emerged 46-32 winners over Athens in a defensive slugfest.
“You never get a night off in this league,” Combs said. “I think the key to winning is not tripping somewhere. Usually it will be on the road. This game worried me for a long time, so I’m grateful to come out of it with a win.”
The Bulldogs are the three-time defending champions of the Ohio Division of the Tri-Valley Conference. The Vikings (11-5, 6-1 TVC-Ohio) are poised to win the away crown in the second half of the season.
Friday’s result, the Vikings’ first victory in Athens since January 9, 2018, keeps them ahead of Meigs and Alexander in the league race.
Vinton County beat Athens (3-12, 2-5 TVC-Ohio) for the second time this season thanks in large part to their defense.
The Vikings trailed 12-5 after one quarter, then outscored the Bulldogs 41-20 the rest of the way.
“I think we just went on the defensive,” Combs said. “That first quarter, we ended the quarter badly defensively. I think they scored six points in the last minute, minute and a half. We just committed to trying to play defense.”
Athens got the start they wanted, as they led 17-8 after Levi Neal scored on a practice in the second quarter.
The Bulldogs were just 5 of 21 from the field in the second half. Neal, who scored eight points in the first half, was unable to play in the second half due to injury.
“We just couldn’t score the basketball,” Athens coach Mickey Cozart said. “It’s been an Achilles blow for us this year. There are games where we started to score and then tonight we didn’t score very well. It’s just one of those transactions.”
Vinton County senior Eli Radabaugh helped spur the comeback. The Vikings were still trailing 21-15 early in the third quarter after Derrick Welsh scored inside.
The Vikings had six straight points to force a 21-21 tie. When Athens responded with the Welsh three-point play, Radabaugh and the Vikings had an answer.
Radabaugh got a steal and scored on a breakout, then he assisted on Braylon Damron’s 3-pointer that put the Vikings ahead for good, 26-24.
Radabaugh led the Vikings with an overall solid game, scoring 18 points on 8 of 14 shooting. He added six assists, five steals and five rebounds.
Radabaugh scored eight points in the third quarter, his base jumper at the buzzer giving the Vikings a 32-26 lead.
“He’s been huge for us all year,” Combs said. “He was a kid who maybe didn’t have the season he was hoping for last year, but he really had a good senior year. He was important to us pretty much every game.”
Radabaugh assisted another Damron 3-pointer in the fourth quarter, giving Vinton County a 37-28 lead with 6:39 remaining.
The Vikings were on a 22-7 streak at that point to take control.
“We felt pretty good about ourselves at halftime,” Cozart said. “Then you go out and play like that to start a quarter. That’s never a good thing. You have to start quarters well and end quarters well.”
Radabaugh’s 3-pointer took the Vikings to a 40-30 advantage with 5:07 remaining.
The Bulldogs were held to two points in the final 5:37 of the game as the Vikings slowly pulled away.
“Fortunately defensively we did enough to not let them score,” Combs said. “Forty-six points is not what we scored but then again if you look at Athens they don’t give up 50 much.”
Damron had 12 points on four 3-pointers for Vinton County, while Zayne Karr had six points and seven rebounds. Ashton Allman added six points.
The Welshman led Athens with nine points, 12 rebounds and four blocked shots. Combs said Welsh was the first player all year to foul Asa Davidson, the 6-foot-6 Vikings senior.
“He was making it difficult for us,” Combs said. “He was hard to keep. He was good for them.”
Nathan Shadik also had eight points for Athens, who are due to travel to River Valley on Saturday in a catch-up game.
The Vikings’ last TVC-Ohio title came in 2018, which was not coincidentally the last season they won in Athens.
The league race has been unpredictable all season. Combs said whichever team can avoid being upset, especially on the road, could be the team that ultimately wins the league.
“If you look at this league, everybody beats everybody,” he said. “It’s been a crazy league.”
Vinton County 46, Athens 32
VINTON COUNTY 46 (11-5, 6-1 TVC-Ohio)
Zayne Karr 3 0-0 6, Eli Radabaugh 8 0-0 18, Braylon Damron 4 0-0 12, Asa Davidson 2 0-0 4, Ashton Allman 2 2-2 6, Luke Bledsoe 0 0-0 0, Braydn Cain 0 0-0 0, Jack Davidson 0 0-0 0; TOTALS 19 2-2 46; 3-point goals: 6 (Damron 4, Radabaugh 2)
ATHENS 32 (3-12, 2-5 TVC-Ohio)
Nathan Shadik 3 1-1 8, Landon Wheatley 1 2-2 4, Derrick Welsh 4 1-3 9, Luke Brandes 0 0-1 0, Levi Neal 3 0-0 8, Sam Goldsberry 0 0-0 0, Clay Boeninger 1 0-0 3, Jake Goldsberry 0 0-0 0, Kieran Murphy 0 0-0 0; TOTALS 12 4-7 32; 3-point field goals: 4 (Neal 2, Shadik, Boeninger 1 each)
TEAM STATS/INDIVIDUAL LEADERS
Field goals – Vinton County 19-47 (0.404), 3-point field goals 6-19 (0.316), Athens 12-45 (0.267), 3-point field goals 4-23 (0.174); Free throws – Vinton County 2-2 (1.000), Athens 4-7 (.571); Rebounds – Vinton County 30 (Karr 7), Athens 32 (Welsh 12); Assists – Vinton County 8 (Radabaugh 6), Athens 5 (Wheatley 2); Blocks – Vinton County 3, Athens 5 (Welsh 4); Turnover – Vinton County 9, Athens 17; Flights – Vinton County 8 (Radabaugh 5), Athens 3 (Boeninger 2); Team fouls – Vinton County 14, Athens 10; JV game – Vinton County 34, Athens 25.