By Josh Brown
BRANDT — With a chance to put a rivalry game away from the free throw line and solidify his team’s lead in the Cross County Conference, Bethel’s Caleb South didn’t feel the slightest bit of pressure.
“No, sir. I’m a vet now,” the Bees’ junior point guard said. “I’ve been on varsity since my freshman year. I love those kind of moments. When the pressure’s on and the game is on the line, that’s my favorite time of the game.”
South scored a game-high 25 points, going 13 for 14 from the free throw line — including a perfect 8 for 8 in the fourth quarter — as the Bees (12-2, 9-0 CCC) played tough team defense in the third quarter to gain a slight advantage and closed the game out from the line late to hold on for a 52-41 victory over defending conference champion Miami East Friday night at Bethel.
The victory avenged a 63-47 loss at Miami East last season which helped propel the Vikings to a share of the CCC title — and it came in a raucous, hot, tournament-like environment.
“It was a great atmosphere, two rival schools,” South said. “Our shots weren’t falling like they normally do from outside, so we had to drive. And I thought we did a great job on the defensive end being scrappy. It was a great team win.”
And after Miami East (8-4, 4-3 CCC) was able to keep the game’s pace slow early and turn it into exactly the kind of game it needed it to be, the Bees did something they’d been trying to do all season.
“We defended, man,” Bethel coach Brett Kopp said. “We finally defended. I don’t think we defended great early. Obviously, when you play Miami East, you want to stop Logan West first and foremost, so we’re going to let them shoot jumpers. When they hit a few, well, you’ve got to adjust. And we were 17 of 19 from the free throw line in the game. When you do those things — you defend, you make free throws at the end of the game — that’s what keeps you at 9-0 in the league.”
“We turned it into the kind of game that we had to have — but then Bethel found another way to win,” Miami East coach Allen Mack said. “They won kind of in a grind-it-out game. We couldn’t score in that third, only had six points in that quarter and dug ourselves too big a hole, and gave them just a little bit of an edge going into the fourth quarter. Then it became a free throw shooting game, and they’re pretty good at playing that game, especially Caleb.”
Bethel maintained a four-point lead through most of the first quarter and early into the second, but one of Austin Rutledge’s four first-half 3s tied the score at 18-18 and a bucket inside by Logan West gave the Vikings their first lead with 4:20 to go until halftime. Another 3 by Rutledge later gave East its biggest lead at 24-18, but two tough drives and a free throw by South got the Bees back to within one, and a Kendal James 3 put Bethel up by two, and the Bees maintained a 28-26 lead at the half.
“We were down one at the half last year, and you don’t want to repeat it,” Kopp said. “I thought we had a little more depth, and I thought we wore them down, and that helped in this hot gym and great atmosphere. Everyone was in it, whether they were on the floor or on the bench. Whether they got one minute or 32, everyone laid it on the line.”
And while Rutledge and West both hurt the Bees with 12 points apiece in the first half, Bethel adjusted in the second half.
After an Austin Kearns bucket tied the score at 28-28 early in the third, the Bees took over the boards. South scored on a putback to give Bethel a lead it would not relinquish, then Tyler Terry added a stickback in transition to extend the lead. A pair of South free throws made it 34-28 before Rutledge hit a short jumper — but those would prove to be his only points of the second half. South scored another second-chance basket to make it 36-30, and the Bees held a 38-32 lead heading into the final quarter.
“I’ve been trying to tell the kids, if the balls not going in the rim or you miss a shot, you go get an offensive rebound,” Kopp said. “Rebounding is not just defensive rebounding. We talk about crashing the glass offensively, and we think we can steal some points that way.”
“That was the key point of the game. They had 12 offensive rebounds and outrebounded us 33-25,” Mack said. “We came in with a plus-six rebounding margin, and that’s a big reason why we came in 8-3. For them to go plus-eight on the boards in a game like this was a big difference.
South hit a pair of free throws to start the fourth, Ryan Rose converted a three-point play and South finished in transition after a steal to force a Miami East timeout with Bethel up 45-32 with 6:17 to play. The Vikings slowly chipped their way back into the game, with a Cam Coomes 3 and a basket in the paint by West cutting the lead to 48-41 with 46 seconds remaining, but South was 4 for 4 from the line from there to seal the win.
South added eight rebounds and two assists to his 25 points, and Terry finished with eight points and eight rebounds. Rose added six points, Jacob Evans had five points and seven rebounds, Daniel Hagen and James had three points apiece, Jesse Nickell had two points and Ian Anderson finished with five rebounds.
West had a double-double with 16 points and 12 rebounds and added four blocked shots to lead the Vikings, and Rutledge finished with a career-high 14 points. Coomes added five points, Kearns had four points and three assists and Justin Brown had two points.
Both teams are back in action Saturday, with Bethel hosting Dayton Christian on its Hall of Fame Night, and with Miami East traveling to Anna.
Contact Josh Brown at (937) 552-2132, or follow @TroyDailySports on Twitter.