MERCERVILLE, Ohio — Well, “MercerVegas” is known for being a place where even the longest odds are overcome.
As of today, you can almost ask the South Gallia Rebels about that.
The key word being “almost”.
That’s because the host Rebels, an overwhelming underdog in some observers’ eyes on Tuesday night, nearly knocked off the Trimble Tomcats —but ultimately fell just short 66-63 in a Tri-Valley Conference Hocking Division boys basketball tilt.
Despite losing to the heavily-favored Tomcats, South Gallia —coming off its initial league win over Federal Hocking on Saturday —gained a lot of attention by surprising Trimble to the final shot.
There were six lead changes and eight ties on Tuesday night, and the Rebels maintained control of the opening dozen minutes — even staking a trio of four-point leads (12-8, 14-10 and 20-16).
Then, after answering a 13-2 Trimble run to end the second quarter with one of their own in the third, the Rebels reeled off 10 unanswered points in a minute and 10 seconds in the fourth — capturing a 59-58 advantage with only 4:55 to play.
South Gallia then led 61-58 and 63-61, but the Red and Gold failed to score for the final 3:35.
The Tomcats tied the bout one last time on a Cameron Kittle bucket, then made three free throws in the final 1:53 to lead 66-63.
But the Rebels still had the final shot, although Nick Klaiber’s three-point attempt at the final buzzer fell short.
With the loss, South Gallia fell to 2-12 — and 1-8 in the TVC-Hocking.
However, even in defeat, the young Rebels — as explained by head coach Larry Howell — have a lot to be proud of.
Trimble, currently in second-place in the division behind league-leader Waterford, is coached by the legendary Howie Caldwell.
“I think our inexperience came back to bite us just a bit one more time. We might have one or two kids that have been in a situation like this in a varsity game before,” said Howell. “But to take a Howie Caldwell-coached team that is second-place in the league down to the last shot, we can’t hang our heads on anything. I’m very proud of the kids and us being able to compete and stay in the game.”
The Tomcats, which raised their record to 10-5 and 9-1 in the TVC-Hocking, indeed received a serious scare.
Caldwell said about the only thing his club did right on Tuesday night was record the win.
“A long time ago, my children told me to not take winning for granted. Yes it was a win tonight, but I don’t feel very good about it,” he said. “If you get an 11-or-12 point lead in the first half, we always emphasize that the first three minutes of the second half are so important. But we came out, turned the ball over so many times, their pressure hurt us. Every time we wanted to stop a three, they would hit one. It just wasn’t a very good ballgame for us. But take nothing away from South Gallia, I thought they played really well, and Coach (Larry) Howell does a tremendous job.”
The Tomcats, which allowed seven South Gallia three-pointers, did not surrender an eighth.
And, that was the most important Rebel shot all night.
Howell had called a timeout to set up the final play, as eventually Eli Ellis passed to Klaiber, who was off the mark for the tie.
“We wanted to make sure we got out on their shooter, switch all the picks and not foul the three,” said Caldwell. “We wanted to make sure it was a contested three. I will give our players credit for defending that last shot there. They got out and defended it very well.”
The Tomcats defended the Rebels well for the final four minutes of each half, including the second quarter when they broke away from a 24-24 tie.
Curtis Haner hit his only three to forge the deadlock, but Josh Henry — at the 1:25 mark — had South Gallia’s only other points until halftime.
Trimble tallied a 13-2 run to lead 37-26, as Randy Hixon — who amassed 18 points on seven field goals and 3-of-3 free throws — scored seven of those markers in the spurt.
He converted three baskets in the surge — including one for an old-fashioned three-point play.
Alex Coffman connected for a pair of rebound putbacks, and Trimble’s Tyler Slack — with Ellis on the bench with three fouls — scored 10 of his game-high 23 points in the second quarter.
He finished with eight field goals and 7-of-8 foul shots, including 6-of-7 in the opening half.
Slack, with 16, and Hixon — with 11 — had 27 of the Tomcats’ 37 first-half points.
As a team, despite 19 turnovers and only 2-of-11 (18-percent) from deep, the Tomcats shot a sizzling 55-percent from inside the arc (24-of-44) — and 12-of-16 (75-percent) at the stripe.
Trimble’s largest lead stood at 41-29 —following another Coffman stickback with 6:18 to play in the third.
If we wouldn’t have made some of the mistakes that we made late in the first half to get down 11 or 12, then maybe we end up pulling this out,” said Howell. “And Eli Ellis not being in there at that time really hurt us. He never played the whole second quarter. When we lose Eli, we lose a really good defender and good rebounder. And that’s when Slack sort of took over for them.”
But Josh Henry, Caleb Henry and even Ellis answered back for the Rebels.
Their own 13-2 spree got them to within one (43-42) — and 10 unanswered points in two minutes and 40 seconds in the fourth actually gave them the lead (59-58).
The Henrys then scored a basket apiece sandwiched around a Slack three-point play, but Josh Henry’s field goal to make it 63-61 with 3:35 left would be the Rebels’ final points.
With 1:53 remaining, Trimble’s Kamron Curry split a pair of free throws for a 64-63 edge, then — after the Tomcats ran exactly a minute off the clock against South Gallia’s zone without the Rebels even fouling —Hixon hit two more free throws for the 66-63 tally with 19.5 ticks to play.
Josh Henry, with nine total buckets and 2-of-2 first-quarter free throws, led the Rebels with 20 points.
Caleb Henry, on four field goals and 3-of-8 freebies, had 11 — as Josh scored 12 and Caleb scored seven in the second half.
Ellis amounted four field goals, including three threes, towards 12 points — while Austin Stapleton, on two twos and two treys, chipped in 10.
Haner, on a triple and 2-of-2 foul shots, and Klaiber — on a two and a three —each added five points.
“Josh Henry played one whale of a game. I’m so proud of his effort and he has that potential. Defensively, we started forcing turnovers in the third quarter and got back into it,” said Howell. “I think with the team we have now, we’re going to hopefully surprise some people. If we can stay consistent with it.”
On Tuesday, the Rebels indeed surprised the Tomcats.
South Gallia will return to TVC-Hocking action on Friday night — when it travels to Waterford.
Paul Boggs can be reached at 740-446-2342, ext. 2106