BY TIM BIRNEY
Valley Sports Report
ATHENS — Senior Aaron Lane pumped in a career-high 43 points to lead Athens to a hard-fought, 83-64, win over a pesky Canton squad here Thursday night in the semifinals of the NTL Showdown.
“I’m real proud of the guys, and their level of effort,” said Athens coach Bob Woodward. “Our kids bought into playing together, and playing for one another.
“These bonus games before Districts are special, especially for our seniors tonight, getting to play another game at home,” he added.
While Lane’s offensive output was eye-popping it was his effort on the defensive end that made the difference as he turned eight steals into 14 points — many at key times in the contest.
“He had some quick hands, and quick feet in the passing lanes tonight, and created some easy points,” said Woodward.
“And, eight of his points came from the foul line at the end,” added Woodward. “He did a real nice job of taking care of the basketball, and getting to the line.”
Senior Brady Smith knocked down a 3-pointer on Athens’ first possession, then Lane scored consecutive lay-ups in transition, and freshman Mason Lister scored on a putback on the offensive boards to give the Wildcats a 9-0 lead with 6:03 left in the first quarter.
Canton trimmed the deficit to 13-8 on a 3-pointer by 6-5 Ben Knapp with 4:38 remaining in the first quarter, but a conventional three-point play by sophomore J.J. Babcock triggered a 10-4 run that gave the Wildcats a 23-12 lead.
Knapp knocked down another 3-pointer, and Caiden Williams added a short jumper in the final minute of the first quarter to trim the deficit to 23-17 after the first eight minutes.
Lane scored the first bucket of the second quarter with 6:59 to make it 25-17, but the Warriors scored back-to-back buckets to cut the gap to 25-21.
After missing two free throws, Canton had another opportunity to cut into the lead, but Lane came up with a steal and a lay-up. However, Cooper Kitchen drained a 3-pointer to pull the Warriors within three points, at 27-24, with 3:10 left in the first half.
Babcock scored the Wildcats’ next three buckets, and Lister and Lane drained 3-pointers as Athens stretched its lead to 39-31 with 33 seconds remaining in the half, but Isaiah Niemczyk scored on an offensive rebound with 8 seconds left to trim the deficit to 39-33 at the half.
“At halftime, we weren’t real pleased with how well we were pressuring the ball in the first half,” said Woodward.
“Aaron (Lane), Damian (Hudson), and Brady (Smith) — our seniors — wanted to get out and play some D,” he noted. “We pressured the ball better in the second half, and were able to get some turnovers and transition baskets as we like to do.
“We like to shoot lay-ups, they’re the most high-percentage shot you can take,” added Woodward with a laugh.
Canton opened the second half with possession of the ball, but Lane registered a quick steal and lay-up to trigger a 15-4 run to give the Wildcats a 54-37 lead with 5:27 left in the third quarter. The run featured 3-pointers by Smith and Lane, and an old-fashioned three-point play by Lane.
The Warriors answered, however, with an 11-2 spurt to cut the Athens lead to 56-48 with 2:30 left in the third quarter.
“Our league is really good, I’ve said it all year,” said Woodward.
“Coach Kitchen does a great job.,” he noted. “They came ready to play, and were prepared for us.
“They didn’t let up, they played hard and kept coming at us,” added Woodward.
After a defensive stop, Canton had a chance to further cut into the Athens lead, but Lane came up with another steal and lay-up to make it 58-48 with 1:08 remaining.
After a defensive stop, Athens took over with 58 seconds remaining, and milked the clock looking for the last shot. With 5 seconds remaining, Lane buried a 3-pointer — his third of the game — to give the Wildcats a 61-48 lead heading into the final eight minutes.
The teams traded buckets until Lane scored back-to-back buckets to give Athens a 71-54 lead with 4:19 left in the game.
Consecutive 3-pointers by Zach Rentzel and Niemczyk trimmed the deficit to 71-60 with 2:57 left in the game, but the Wildcats made 7 of 9 free throws down the stretch to salt the game away.
Babcock had 19 points, five rebounds, four assists, and three blocked shots in the win, while Lister added seven points and seven rebounds, and Smith chipped in with six points.
Hudson dished out six assists in the win, and sophomore Troy Pritchard grabbed seven boards.
Niemczyk led Canton with 23 points, and Knapp had 20 points and 15 rebounds.
Woodward also credited his bench, as much for its support as its play, in the win.
“We’re real proud of Tucker Brown,” said Woodward. “He takes pride in being the best teammate he can be. He hasn’t been able to play, but we hear him yelling encouragement from the bench.
“It takes everybody,” added Woodward. “We’re real proud of the type of teammates these guys are developing into.”
Athens takes on Troy in the Showdown finals Saturday night at Mansfield University. The game will start 25 minutes after the conclusion of the girls game, which tips off at 6 p.m.
IN PHOTO 1: Athens senior Aaron Lane. … PHOTOS 1-20 BY TIM BIRNEY. — PHOTOS 21-24 BY DAVID ALLIGER.
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