For the first time this season, Athens has a winning record in the Tri-Valley Conference-Ohio. Its 55-43 victory over Nelsonville-York extended its winning streak to four games and breathed life into Athens in the final stretch of its regular season schedule.
"This is a rivalry game, Nelsonville vs. Athens it's a big game" Athens coach Mickey Cozart said.
The Bulldogs (7-12, 6-5 TVC-Ohio) needed to fight hard to pull out a win, and they did exactly that.
It wasn't a pretty start, however. The first quarter was littered with turnovers and missed shots as both teams tried to adjust to the other's physical playstyles. Neither team was able to crack double figures by the end of the first quarter, and the Bulldogs held a slim one-point lead. Their offensive ramped up with a pair of quick 3s from Landon Wheatley and Levi Neal, but the Buckeyes responded with a 5-0 run. Derrick Welsh made three blocks in the first half to aid the Bulldogs on defense, but the Buckeyes ran ahead and took the lead just before halftime.
"I thought we didn't play very good in the first half to be quite honest," Cozart said. "I thought we looked flat, we were losing all the 50/50 balls. Just the energy wasn't there."
The Bulldogs found that energy after halftime. After a quick bucket by the Buckeyes, Wheatley scored five straight points to put the Bulldogs ahead, and Neal added to the lead on the Bulldogs' next possession with his third 3-pointer of the game.
Athens piled on top of Nelsonville-York in the third quarter. Wheatley and Neal continued their barrage with back-to-back 3-pointers to extend the lead to nine points.
The Buckeyes wouldn't go down easily, though. Nelsonville-York responded to Athens' surge with an 8-0 run of its own to cut the lead down to a single possession. Neal, who finished the game with 15 points and five 3-pointers, once again rose to the occasion and sank a shot from beyond the arc to pad the Bulldogs lead.
Nothing stopped the Bulldogs in the final quarter. Although Wheatley committed two fouls and was taken out of the game with five minutes left on the clock, he was able to cap off his night with his final 3-pointer to open the fourth quarter. The junior scored a team-high 16 points.
But without Wheatley, Athens lost steam. Nelsonville-York had scored five points just before Wheatley's fouls, and the game had reached a critical juncture. If Athens wanted a win, it needed to fill the hole left on the court.
The Bulldogs worked fast. Welsh quickly filled the offensive void with an offensive rebound and knocked down a field goal to push the Bulldogs ahead by seven points. Senior Sam Goldsberry picked up the slack on defense, and the Buckeyes were shutout for the remainder of the game.
"When Landon went down, I thought Sam Goldsberry went down and did a really nice job on the top of that zone, and we really didn't skip a beat." Cozart said.
The Bulldogs secured their sixth win in TVC-Ohio and shut the Buckeyes out in the final five minutes of the game. They're above .500 in conference play for the first time this season, and they rose to a challenge from their rival when the time came.