REYNOLDSBURG — Although the Raiders finished an impressive regular season at 16-6, they along with the other 46 Division I teams in Central Ohio pressed the reset button as the first round of the playoffs finally were underway. Up first for the 10th-seeded Raiders was a home game against the 32nd-seeded Pioneers out of Olentangy Orange, who ended up keeping the game close in the first half.
Then an explosive second half happened in what ended up being the best performance of the season for the Raiders.
The Pioneers went on a 7-0 run to answer a big run by the home team to take a one point lead with 1:04 left in the 2nd. The Raiders (17-6) then scored 27 unanswered points and held Olentangy Orange scoreless until there was 5:31 left in regulation, which included pitching a shutout in the 3rd quarter, and the Raiders exploded for a 59-31 victory in their playoff opener.
The Raiders allowed 0 points in the 3rd quarter, 8 points in the 4th quarter, and 31 points overall in what was by far their best defensive performance all around this season. But the Pioneers only trailed 25-23 at halftime and kept pace with the Raiders early, answering an 11-2 burst by the Raiders to close out the 2nd quarter.
“We knew things like that could happen because it is tournament time, and we fully expected [Olentangy] Orange to give us their best shot,” Raiders head coach Scott Davis said of his message to his team at halftime. “They made some plays, but we didn’t press the panic button. We talked before the game about coming out and being locked in mentally and physically, particularly on the defensive end, and we had a nice defensive effort in the second half.”
The Raiders and Pioneers traded baskets in a low-scoring 1st quarter overall, but the Pioneers hit a late jumper to end the opening quarter to take a 12-11 over the Raiders. Although the Pioneers opened the 2nd quarter with a pair of free throws to extend their lead to three points, junior guard Jamiel Goliday tied the game with a three-pointer for the Raiders. The Raiders would then score six points in under a minute to cap off an 11-2 run, forcing an Olentangy Orange timeout with 4:18 left in the 2nd and the Raiders leading 22-16. But the Pioneers would answer with a 7-0 run of their own to take a 23-22 lead over the Raiders with 1:04 left in the first half. Senior guard KJ Walker would, however, make a three pointer to close out the 2nd quarter to give the Raiders a 25-23 halftime lead.
Little did everyone in attendance know that this would be the start of a very one-sided burst for the Raiders that would extend deep into the second half.
Neither team would score in the 3rd quarter until junior forward Tre Williams split a pair of free throws to give the Raiders a 26-23 lead with 5:25 left in the quarter. But just over a minute later, sophomore guard Ben Fort threw down a thunderous dunk over an Olentangy Orange defender to electrify the home crowd. And he was not finished; Fort would score two quick layups on back-to-back possessions to force an Olentangy Orange timeout with 3:34 left in the 3rd, as the Raiders pushed their lead to 32-23. Out of the timeout, Walker would score on a layup, Fort would pull up and swish a three pointer, Goliday would score a basket plus a free throw after drawing a foul, and Fort put an exclamation point on the Raiders’ huge 3rd quarter with another dunk to give the Raiders a 42-23 lead going into the final eight minutes.
Fort scored 11 of the 17 3rd quarter points for the Raiders, as they held Olentangy Orange scoreless in the quarter. It was the first time the Raiders have shut out any team in a quarter and it was their best defensive performance in a quarter overall; their previous best was 5 points allowed to Lancaster in the 2nd quarter just eight days prior.
“I saw some open shots and took them,” Fort said of his big performance in the 3rd quarter. “Coach said [at halftime] we had to have better defense and stop [Olentangy Orange] from shooting three pointers since they are a great three-point shooting team.” Fort led the Raiders with 17 points and was one of three Raiders who scored in double digits overall; senior forward JJ Cooper would score 11 points and Walker would finish with 10 of his own.
Cooper would score 5 of his 11 points to open up the 4th quarter, and the Raiders found themselves leading 49-23 with under six minutes left in regulation. The Pioneers would finally break their 11:33 scoring drought that spanned from late in the 2nd quarter, as they answered the Raiders’ 27-0 run with a short jumper. The Raiders would then score the next five points before the starters were pulled from the game, and they would run the clock out from there. The Pioneers would score 6 of their 8 second-half points after the starters went to the bench, and the Raiders would emerge victorious from there.
“We contested all of their shots and they didn’t really get any clean looks,” coach Davis said of the Raiders’ second half defense of the Pioneers. “Ben [Fort] is a really nice sophomore for us. We were able to get stops that led to open-court opportunities, and he is really good in those types of situations. I don’t recall having a quarter like that before, especially to go through the first eight minutes and even into the 4th quarter without giving up a basket. We were pretty locked in and we wanted to keep it going for as long as we could. The nice thing is we were able to convert on the offensive end and really stretch it out.”
With the win and especially their strong second half, the Raiders have successfully built momentum going into their second-round home playoff matchup against 33rd-seeded Walnut Ridge. After the game, Coach Davis praised his team of their performance, but reminded them of the importance of the postseason and what lies ahead.
“I talked about how after this weekend, about half of the teams’ seasons will be over in the country,” coach Davis said immediately after the win. “We have advanced and that is the most important thing. We’ll move onto the next one and try to get prepared for Walnut Ridge.”
NEXT UP + PLAYOFF PICTURE:
The Raiders (17-6) advance to the second round of the Columbus 4 District Tournament. They will play 33rd-seeded Walnut Ridge at home on Friday 3/3 at 7:00pm, and the winner will advance to the District semifinals. The Raiders defeated the Scots 52-36 at home on Dec. 5th.
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