A week after picking up its first Tri-Valley Conference loss of the season in a heartbreaking one-point defeat to Vinton County, Athens returns to conference play Friday night. 

Athens (10-4, 7-1 TVC Ohio) is entering a crucial two-game conference stretch as it faces off with Nelsonville-York (6-9, 3-4 TVC Ohio) on Friday and Alexander (11-2, 7-1 TVC Ohio) on Feb. 1. 

Those games will likely have a huge impact on the TVC standings as Athens and Alexander vie for the conference championship. The two teams are currently tied at the top of the standings with each having four conference games to go.

That makes the Nelsonville-York game on Friday a must-win for Athens, who has struggled in its last two games since losing starting guard Elijah Williams. 

Athens noticeably had trouble finding a consistent ball handler to replace Williams in its road defeat at Vinton County. But in Tuesday’s 54-47 win against Marietta, Athens showed some positive signs from the guard position. Brayden Markins stepped up to assist Eli Chubb at the position and delivered — scoring in double-digits for the second straight game. 

The Bulldogs still struggled when it came to turning the ball over, though. 

They tallied 17 turnovers as a team, which frustrated coach Mickey Cozart. 

“We just kept turning the ball over, we just kept making bad decisions,” Cozart said after the game. “It’s been an issue all year and we’re playing without our point guard so it’s a big adjustment for us.”

Despite the turnover problem, the Bulldogs’ scoring balance on the offensive end still serves as a good winning formula. Markins and Isaiah Butcher each racked up 14 points on Tuesday, while Logan Maxfield and Justin Hynes have been key contributors too. 

When Athens traveled to Nelsonville-York on Dec. 18, it escaped with one of its narrowest wins of the season. 

The Bulldogs jumped out to a 40-24 lead in the game, but the Buckeyes mounted a late comeback and closed the game on a 27-14 run. 

The Bulldogs would hold off the Buckeyes by three points to capture the 54-51 road win. 

Athens shot 49 percent from the field in the December battle, while Nelsonville-York only shot 35 percent. Athens also out-rebounded its TVC rival 33-27.

If Athens wants to have the edge in the season finale against Nelsonville-York, its going to have to limit turnovers and out-muscle its opponents once again on the glass. 

In a break from a crucial stretch in TVC play, Athens will also host Wood County Christian on Saturday in its second game of the weekend.

@j_flann10

jf913115@ohio.edu