STEUBENVILLE - Big Red basketball fans won't soon forget Tuesday's OVAC Class 4A semifinal battle with East Liverpool, played before a full house at the Crimson Center.
Adam Sterling's buzzer-beating layup lifted the second-seeded Big Red to a thrilling 76-74 victory over the Potters. The fantastic finish came just seconds after freshman Charles Reeves tied it at 74 when he took an inbounds pass from Lucas Herrington and scored from the paint.
East Liverpool, which entered the Wheeling Hospital-sponsored tournament as the three seed, had plenty of time following Reeves' deuce to secure the victory. With a little more than two seconds left, however, the Potters committed a costly turnover.
Sterling grabbed the loose ball, drove to the hole and got his shot airborne before time expired. When the ball fell through the net, a wild celebration ensued and Big Red had its 17th win in 20 outings.
"They turned it over and it happened to be Sterling who picked up the ball near half court," said Big Red coach Mike Haney. "He took two big dribbles and laid it in. It was smart that he laid it up. If he had tried to dunk it, the ball would have been in his hands a little longer. He was able to get it out of his hand in time.
"It was a great win. Our players never gave up. They just kept fighting all the way to the end."
East Liverpool coach Nate Conley was spot on when he called the third meeting of the season (Big Red won the first by 24 and the second by a point) between the two teams "a great basketball game."
"Unfortunately, we didn't come out on the winning end," he continued. "The OVAC is a glorified regular-season game. This loss means nothing, it's not like we're not playing tomorrow. It's a regular season game that we didn't win but we'll get better from this loss."
Early on, it appeared the Potters were going to run Big Red right out of the gym. Conley's cagers went 14 for 17 from the floor in the opening period and grabbed a 34-24 lead. A pair of trifectas from Kade Reynolds along with a Hayden Cunningham triple powered an 11-0 East Liverpool run.
Big Red regrouped in the second, holding the Potters to just three field goals. After a Cunningham hoop made it 38-24 East Liverpool, the hosts scored 15 of the next 16 points to knot the score at 39. Four points from Sterling and a Reeves hoop finished the Red spurt. The visitors were up 43-41 at the intermission.
"We gave up 34 points in the first quarter and they shot lights out," Haney noted. "We gave up some easy buckets in transition and allowed too many open shots. Our defense got better in the second and we came up with some key turnovers. We didn't shoot well but we kept fighting and got some offensive rebounds.
"Earlier in the game, we turned the ball over, didn't get back on defense and just didn't do some of the fundamental things were usually pretty good at. It could have been the different atmosphere (Big Red's band made its first appearance of the season at a basketball game) and maybe a little bit of nerves. We just dug deep and kept going."
The Potters started the third with a 6-0 run and were up 49-41. Big Red, however, hung tough and grabbed a 56-55 advantage late following a Brandon Herring-Hill three-ball and a Sterling bucket, coming off a Herring-Hill assist. Austin Emmerling's hoop put East Liverpool up 57-56 heading into the fourth.
Cunningham buried two in a row from behind the arc and East Liverpool led 63-56 early in the fourth. The Potters were able to hold that seven-point edge until Dionee Wallace Jones knocked down a triple with 3:40 left putting the score at 67-63.
Reynolds answered for East Liverpool before Sterling swished a three and Herring-Hill laid one in with his left hand, making it 69-68. Cunningham then got three the old-fashioned way and Conley's club led by four. Reeves and Cunningham exchanged points before Herring-Hill hit a jumper with 46 ticks left. The buckets by Reeves and Sterling finished the scoring.
"East Liverpool is a great team," Haney said. "Coach Conley and his staff do a great job. They have some real offensive firepower but we just kept fighting."
Conley admitted, "It's tough beating them (Big Red) on their court. We battled tonight and I think we should have won the game but we didn't. We still have a chance to get better and we will."
Herring-Hill led Big Red in scoring with 21. He also doled out four assists. Sterling added 17 to go along with 22 rebounds and four blocks. Reeves also recorded a double-double (14 points and 14 rebounds). Herrington added eight.
Cunningham took game scoring honors with 22 (he had 13 during the final frame). Reynolds netted 17, Emmerling 14 and Owen Crawford 12.
The win sends Big Red to the Class 4A title game for the second season in a row. Haney's crew will play unbeaten Union Local Saturday on the campus of Ohio University Eastern. The tip is set for 12:30 p.m.
The Jets, Ohio's top ranked Division III club, beat St. Clairsville 46-40 in Tuesday's other semifinal.
"It's a great feeling to go back to the finals," Haney commented. "These kids were in the press conference last year after we lost to St. Clairsville. Hopefully that hit home and they didn't like being in the locker room after the lost.
"You don't get the opportunity too many times to play the No. 1 team in the state. We'll enjoy this one tonight but starting tomorrow, our focus has to be on Union Local."
Big Red 76, East Liverpool 74
East Liverpool 34 9 14 17 - 74
Steubenville 22 19 15 20 - 76
EAST LIVERPOOL (13-6): Crawford 5 2-2 12; Davidson 1 0-0 2; Austin 3 1-1 7; Cunningham 7 5-5 22; Rickerd 0 0-0 0; English 0 0-0 0; Reynolds 7 1-4 17; Emmerling 6 2-3 14; Long 0 0-0 0. TOTALS: 29 11-15 74. 3-pointers: Cunningham 3, Reynolds 2; Rebounds 26 (Emmerling 7); Turnovers 14.
BIG RED (17-3): Wallace Jones 1 0-0 3; Herring-Hill 8 3-4 21; Herrington 3 0-0 8; Reeves 6 2-3 14; Bougard 2 0-0 6; Sterling 7 2-2 17; D. Smith 0 0-0 0; C. Smith 3 0-0 7. TOTALS: 30 7-9 76; 3-pointers: Herring-Hill 2, Bougard 2, Herrington 2, Sterling, C. Smith, Wallace Jones; Rebounds 59 (Sterling 22, Reeves 14); Turnovers 11.