By Josh Brown
Troy Daily News
WEST MILTON — Milton-Union boys basketball coach Rusty Berner dubbed this week “gladiator week” for his team.
The week got off to a rough start.
The Bulldogs battled visiting Waynesville close in the first half, cutting what had been an early 10-point deficit down to three at one point and only trailing by four at the break. But the Spartans — who currently sit in second place in the Southwestern Buckeye League Buckeye Division — outscored the Bulldogs 19-7 in the third quarter and pulled away from there, handing Milton-Union a 59-42 defeat Wednesday.
Milton-Union, which has already won more games this season than in any of the past three, fell to 4-9 overall and 2-5 in the SWBL Buckeye, dropping its second straight and fifth in its last six games. Waynesville, meanwhile, improved to 11-4 and 6-2 in the Buckeye, second only to 8-0 Madison — which is up next for the Bulldogs on Friday.
And while the Bulldogs are improving, they’re still missing some key pieces to help them get over the hump in the win-loss column.
“Right now, we’ve got a great group of kids. But we need that leadership — somebody to step up from a leadership standpoint that’s going to keep our guys up when things aren’t going well,” Berner said. “And that’s a hard thing when you don’t have that.”
A slow start did Milton-Union no favors, as Waynesville jumped out to a 7-0 lead before the Bulldogs got on the board. Brandon Lavey converted a steal into a layup to get them started, though, and a putback by Josh Woodell made the score 10-6 before an offensive rebound by John Cole turned into a 3 by Alex Hurley — two things that would later become trends in the game — and Waynesville led 13-6 after one.
“Early on was tough. We’ve had four days off and were kind of lethargic in the first quarter,” Berner said. “I thought we did a good job of composing ourselves and getting back into it in the second quarter.”
In the second, Waynesville led by as many as 10 at 18-8, but the Bulldogs found ways to battle back. Nathan Brumbaugh hit a jumper, Will Morris drove the baseline for a layup and Sam Case hit a 3 in the corner to cut the deficit to three at 18-15 and force a Spartan timeout with 4:27 left in the half. Waynesville pushed the lead back to seven at 25-18, but Lavey hit a late 3 to make it a four-point game at the half at 25-21.
In the third, though, Waynesville pulled away for good.
The Spartans outrebounded the bulldogs 9-2 in the quarter and 34-25 in the game — with 12 of those rebounds coming on the offensive end and turning into second-chance points — and Hurley hit three of his five 3s in the game in the third to help Waynesville build a 44-28 lead going into the fourth and effectively put the game out of reach.
“At the end of the day, in the third quarter and early in the fourth, the toughness things like rebounding the basketball, sitting down and defending, and then when you’re not getting stops, coming down and not getting good shots and not finishing, it’s a double-edged sword on both sides of the court,” Berner said. “I don’t think our kids handled adversity real well in the third quarter.
“The name of the game is to prevent them from scoring and then put it in the hoop. We need to get better offensively at being more efficient executing our offense. We’re very stagnant and in a rough patch with it right now.”
Lavey led the Bulldogs with 11 points and four rebounds, while A.J. Lovin scored seven of his eight points in the second half. Case and Brumbaugh each added five points, Aaran Stone scored four points, Woodell, Morris, Nick Radcliff and Andrew Lambert each chipped in two points and Caleb Wintrow scored one point.
“I thought Brandon played a solid game, and A.J.’s an athlete that can make plays. It’s just that consistency factor on both ends of the court,” Berner said.
Hurley led all scorers with 17 points, Anthony Carmichael had 14 points and 11 rebounds, Cole had 11 points and seven rebounds and Bryce Nolbertowicz had six points to lead the Spartans. Ethan Speers scored four points, Grant Johnson had three points, Mac Greely had two points and Ryan Papanek and Luke Kindred each scored one.
“The other side of this? Waynesville’s a very good team,” Berner said. “Sometimes when you don’t play well, it’s easy to put it on yourself than rather sometimes give credit to a good team. They’re second in our league for a reason. They’re well coached, they play hard and they do the little things.”
Things won’t get any easier as “gladiator week” continues — Milton-Union travels to Madison Friday then hosts Brookville Saturday — a pair of state-ranked teams, with Brookville No. 6 and Madison No. 14 in the latest Division III state poll.
“I want to see our kids, when things start to not go well, be able to keep the ship afloat with our toughness things,” Berner said. “If you go through a rut on offense sometimes, you defend and rebound and can still maintain the game. And our teams have done that in the past. When we were struggling offensively, our defensive game and game on the glass has kept us in it. And that’s something we’ve got to go back to work and get better at.
“We’ll get there. The kids want it. As coaches, we have to do a better job of pushing them where they need to go mentally and physically to become a tougher team.”
Josh Brown is the Sports Editor of the Troy Daily News. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @TroyDailySports on Twitter.