LOGAN – When Logyn Ratliff saw his New Lexington squad drew Sheridan in the first round of the Division II sectional tournament, his eyes lit up.
State-ranked Sheridan defeated his team twice in the regular season, but the Panthers were more competitive than the final scores indicated.
“Third time’s a charm,” Ratliff thought.
As it turned out, Ratliff and the Panthers had a reason to be excited.
Ratliff played arguably his best game of the season, scoring a game-high 20 points while playing an active role at the top of a 1-3-1 zone defense that stymied the Generals from the start. The result was a 53-43 win that didn’t just send a feisty Panther crowd into a frenzy on Tuesday night at Logan High School, but earned them the right to play for a rare district berth.
The 14th-seeded Panthers (10-13) will return to play Athens, 62-36 winners against Marietta, at 7 p.m. on Friday night. Sheridan, defending district champions and a final four team last season, finished 19-4.
New Lexington coach Jeremy Duerr said he felt confident in the match-up, at least compared to the other possibilities. He knew his team would raise its competitive level and increase focus against the rival Generals, who have no doubt had their number in recent years.
New Lexington fans celebrate the team’s 53-43 win against Sheridan in a Division II sectional on Tuesday at Logan High School.Buy Photo
New Lexington fans celebrate the team’s 53-43 win against Sheridan in a Division II sectional on Tuesday at Logan High School. (Photo: Sam Blackburn/Times Recorder)
This time was a different story. It was New Lex who looked like the No. 3 seed, not Sheridan.
“We played them twice, we know them well, it’s tough to beat a team three times,” Duerr said, when asked why he was optimistic. “We came into this game with a plan and our guys executed it flawlessly from start to finish. I’m just extremely proud of them.”
Ratliff was at his best at the most opportune times. His 3-pointer just before halftime, after a 3 from Nate Johnson cut the Panthers’ lead to five, sent the Panthers ahead 25-17 at the half. He hit another to start the third after two straight Sheridan turnovers, extending the lead to 11.
But he especially shined late. Sheridan trimmed a 13-point second-half deficit to 35-29 with 5:50 to go after five straight points from Landen Russell, which included an NBA range 3. Duerr followed with a timeout, and his team proceeded to trim 1:33 off the clock before Ratliff hit a pull-up in the lane to stop the bleeding.
Russell hit another long 3 the next time down and Luken Hill followed with a putback to cut the deficit to 39-34 with 2:49 left. The Generals got no closer, as Ratliff drove for a layup the next time down and Sheridan missed two consecutive front ends of 1-and-1s.
New Lex hit 9 of 15 free throws in the final 1:23.
“As the old saying goes, playing a team a third time and beating them a third time is always hard to do,” Ratliff said. “We just came in with a chip on our shoulder. We just played within ourselves and stuck to the game plan.”
Sheridan’s recent struggles against zone defense again came to fruition. Much like a late-season loss at John Glenn that cost the Generals a share of the outright Muskingum Valley League title, they failed to get comfortable against a Panther zone that focused on taking away penetration and easy post entries.
The result was a 17-of-51 effort from the floor that included a 6-of-26 showing on 3s. The Generals also missed three front ends of 1-and-1s in the fourth quarter. Coupled with the Panthers’ patient — and efficient — offensive approach, it was the perfect recipe for an upset.
New Lexington led by as many as 13 in the second half and still took a 34-24 lead into the fourth. At one point in the second quarter, after a Hunter Yakes 3 cut the Panthers’ lead to 16-14, Sheridan missed 10 straight shots and went almost six minutes without scoring.
The Generals played into their hands by settling for 3s and not getting into the gaps of the zone to open up shooters.
“We came in with a plan to slow the game down and disrupt the rhythm of the game, because they want to play fast and score in the high 60s and 70s,” Duerr said. “We put in a defense that we haven’t used all year and we ran it pretty much the whole game. I think it disrupted them. They really didn’t have any offensive flow.”
Sheridan also fought extreme foul trouble. After the teams combined for only nine first-half fouls, there were 15 called in the third quarter alone — Sheridan had nine, and the Panthers were shooting in the double bonus early in the fourth.
Hill, the Generals’ 6-5 wing who leads them in assists and rebounds, sat for six minutes in the third and post man Shay Taylor sat the final 5:40. Logan Ranft, who averages double figures in scoring, was also on the bench in that span.
With its height sidelined and shooters neutralized, it made the zone even more effective. Russell, Hill and Ranft, their top scorers, combined for nine points in the first three quarters.
“We just didn’t do the little things and that was big,” Fisher said. “We gave them five offensive rebounds in the first quarter. We shot 26 3s which is not us. We missed the front end of a couple 1-and-1s when we had it down to five or six. Those things get you beat.” Fisher said they anticipated zone defense and had been practicing against it routinely, but it was still effective. They changed up their offensive approach in the second half, but the foul trouble was too much to overcome.
“We tried to get some points off our defense, but you’ve got to be able to score to do that,” Fisher said. “When you’re not scoring, you can’t set up your pressure.”
Duerr wasn’t ready to look ahead to the next matchup. The taste of his biggest win as Panthers coach was still fresh on his palate. He admitted it might be difficult to get his team refocused after such an emotional win.
“We’re going to enjoy this one for a while,” Duerr said.
Sam Blackburn is a reporter with the Zanesville Times Recorder. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at 740-450-6723 or on Twitter at @SamBlackburnTR.