Nothing seemed to go right for Athens during Thursday’s district semifinal game against Zane Trace in The Convo.
Early shooting struggles, turnovers and a lack of rebounding put Athens in a hole it couldn’t climb out of. The Bulldogs’ season came to end in a 48-28 loss to Zane Trace.
“We just didn’t play very well,” Athens coach Mickey Cozart. “We started that game and we couldn’t make a bucket. I just think things snowballed from there. When things start snowballing, you can forget to do the little things.”
After taking a 5-3 lead early on in the first half, the Bulldogs (17-7) went cold and the Pioneers (20-4) pounced on the opportunity to bury them.
The Pioneers went on a 16-0 that spanned the middle part of the first half. They closed the first quarter on a 10-0 run to take a 13-5 lead, while the Bulldogs closed the quarter 2-for-11 from the field.
Alongside shooting struggles, turnovers were also an immediate problem for the Bulldogs in the first half. At the point, Elijah Williams ended the Pioneers’ 16-0 run in the second quarter, the Bulldogs had nine turnovers, while the Pioneers only had two.
“We had like seven (turnovers) in a row and it really kind of ended the whole deal,” Cozart said. “I mean honestly, you turn the ball over seven straight times — I don’t know how many points they got off of those — you’re probably talking eight or 10. Well, that’s a game changer. You’ve got to take care of the basketball.”
An Andrew Stephens steal, followed by an Eli Chubb basket in the closing seconds of the first half gave the Bulldogs a short bust of momentum that didn’t last long. The Pioneers nailed a 3-pointer to increase their lead to 15 points going into the half.
The Bulldogs were held to just 11 points in the first half.
If Athens had any hope of a comeback in the second half, Zane Trace erased it quickly, jumping out to 17-point and eventually 20-point leads.
Isaiah Butcher wasn’t available to play in the first half. His return in the second helped the Bulldogs briefly on the boards, but it wasn’t near enough to close the deficit, let alone the rebounding margin between the two teams.
Zane Trace, the No.1 seed in the district, went on to out-rebound Athens, the No. 4 seed, 14-8 on the offensive end.
The Bulldogs went 1-for-18 from the 3-point line and were held to just 28 points for the game, a season-low offensively.
The Bulldogs had to face a variety of setbacks going into the evening and during the game. Alongside Butcher missing the first half, Eli Chubb was battling a sickness and was unable to sustain being in the game for long stretches of time. To add to the setbacks for the Bulldogs, Logan Maxfield went down with a lower-leg injury after a made layup late in the third quarter.
Maxfield didn’t return.
“We were out of rhythm,” Cozart said. “There’s no excuses. Eli Chubb’s sick. He could hardly play any minutes tonight. We were just out of whack to start that game. They’re a good team. No doubt about it. They’re a No. 1 seed for a reason so give them all the credit in the world.”
Williams had 13 to lead the Bulldogs — including 11 of his team’s first 17 points. No other Bulldog reached double figures.
Nick Nesser had 17 to lead Zane Trace, while Cam Evans finished with 15.
The Bulldogs finish the season with a 17-7 record, a Tri-Valley Conference title and a sectional title.
The season coming to a close for Athens means the end of the excellent basketball careers of its six seniors.
Chubb, Williams and Maxfield, along with Josh Mace, Justin Hynes, and Blake Stover, each played their final game in a Bulldog uniform on Thursday.
“It was fitting, right?,” Cozart said. “The way we started with some of these guys and to go and perform like we have this season. I’ll never forget this season. It meant a lot to me.”
Cozart said his team was motivated by their early doubters.
“I think there was a lot of people that wasn’t sure what we were going to be (this season) and that’s OK,” he said. “We like that. We like playing with a little chip and proving people wrong.”
And through the postgame ride of emotions and while the loss still stung in his head, the only thing on Cozart’s mind at the moment was being there for one of his seniors.
“It’s an emotional deal,” he said. “It’s an emotional locker room. All I could really think about is getting to the hospital and checking on my guy. He’s got a football future ahead of him and I’m hoping that this (injury) doesn’t hurt that.”