Central boys silence Shenandoah, advance to Class 2A championship

MOVING AROUND — Steubenville Catholic Central’s A.J. Connor dribbles past Shenandoah’s Kendal Sherman during a boys OVAC semifinal matchup on Tuesday. (Photo by Joe Catullo)

STEUBENVILLE — Steubenville Catholic Central boys basketball coach Chris Tarquinio celebrated a birthday Monday. The gift he really wanted, however, didn’t arrive until Tuesday.

Seniors A.J. Connor and Donnie Vandeborne combined for 29 points as the second-seeded Crusaders knocked off No. 3 Shenandoah, 39-29, in the semifinals of the OVAC Wheeling Hospital Class 2A Boys Tournament.

“A couple of the guys wished me happy birthday yesterday, and I said ‘Give me my present tomorrow night,'” Tarquinio said after his Crusaders improved to 12-7 on the season. “That’s all I really wanted for my birthday.

“We knew coming in what Shenandoah is all about. They make you play their style of basketball. We knew it was going to be a dog fight. We had to stay aggressive against their physical style of play. Our guys showed a lot of grit and determination tonight.”

Central will play for the school’s first OVAC title since 1993 when it squares off with top-seeded River, a 54-24 winner over Toronto, in Saturday’s championship game at Ohio University Eastern. The tip is set for 10 a.m. The Zeps, now 14-6, will host the Red Knights Friday in the consolation game.

Both teams struggled to score throughout the contest. Two free throws by Connor put the Crusaders ahead 6-5 after the opening quarter. Shenandoah pulled even at 12 on a Tanner Brown basket late in the second. Central went up 18-14 on a conventional 3-point play by Vandeborne before a Boone Jones deuce made it 18-16 at the break.

Jones scored from the lane early in the third to knot the count at 18. Then, Central rattled off five straight to take the lead for good. Connor sank a free toss, Vandeborne went coast to coast after a steal by Geno DiBiase, who then put back his own miss, and the Crusaders led 23-18. The margin increased to six (26-20) following a Matt Kilonsky triple. Tarquinio’s club was up 28-24 heading into the fourth.

Each team only managed two field goals during the final eight minutes, but the Crusaders drained seven free throws to put the victory on ice. Connor finished the fourth with eight points. He swished four freebies, two coming after the Zeps were hit with a technical foul.

“I was disappointed that we lost our composure there,” Shenandoah coach Marc Smith said. “That’s not who we are and not who any of our individuals are. They are great kids. I think it was just of indicative of the frustration of the night.”

The Zeps finished with 13 field goals compared to 12 for Central. From the stripe, the Crusaders were 13-of-23, while Shenandoah was just 2-of-9.

“We haven’t shot free throws well all year, so that was not really a surprise,” Smith said. “We’ve won games on the defensive end and I thought we were pretty good on the defensive end tonight.

“Offensively, we thought we got the ball where we needed it and we thought we had an advantage in the post. We just couldn’t convert. Things just kind of steam-rolled, we got frustrated, a little out of sorts and started to panic.”

Connor finished with 19 to take game-scoring honors. Vandeborne added 10 and a team-leading eight rebounds.

“I’ve been saying all year how great it is to have two guys like A.J. and Donnie as our senior leaders,” Tarquinio said. “They controlled the game and really stepped up when we needed to score points.

“Our two other seniors (DiBiase and Josh Costello) really stepped up also. I think Geno really turned the game to our favor with his steals defensively (he finished with three).

“When (Jake) Stoll got into foul trouble, Josh went in and did his thing. He’s a gritty player who does whatever you ask. He never complains, he just goes out there and performs.”

Jones recorded a double-double for the Zeps, netting 14 points and hauling down 10 rebounds. Nick Miller contributed eight.

“Jones is a guy who’s in the gym at 5:30 every morning,” Smith said. “He’s a three-sport athlete and just a junior, thankfully. He has great leadership skills, great work ethic and he’s trying to become the man for us, so to speak, which is a process. I can’t say enough good things about him. He earns everything he gets because of his work ethic and he deserves to have good things happen for him.

“We have a lot of want-to in our locker room, a lot of effort. We need to keep our nose to the grindstone and we keep putting ourselves in position game in and game out, season in and season out to play for OVAC, league and tournament titles. The more you knock on the door, the more you learn how to react in those situations.”

Tarquinio said his Crusaders will enjoy the victory overnight before getting back to work today.

“It’s been 25 years since we won an OVAC championship,” he said. “This group has earned everything it has. We talked about this before the season began and playing for an OVAC title was one of their goals.

“Now we have a chance to bring it home against River, one of the best teams in the state. We’re going to go down there and see what we can do.”

The 2A consolation game will be a preview of the Division IV sectional opener when the Zeps travel to Toronto.

“Our program has come a long way recently,” Smith said. “We had eight wins, then nine and at this point we have 14. We have not been in situations where we’ve played for championships, titles, things that matter. I thought that showed on the floor tonight. I thought we were a little tight. We tried some different things but whatever button we pushed offensively, it just didn’t happen for us.

“We’ve been pretty successful so far and what goes along with that is expectations are raised. You get to the point where you are playing better opponents and you are playing for things.

“We have Toronto on Friday, Southern Local next Tuesday then Toronto again. It’s not going to be any easier.”

Catholic Central 39, Shenandoah 29

Shenandoah 5-11-8-5 — 29

Central 6-12-10-11 — 39

SHENANDOAH (14-6): Wiley 0 0-0 0; Jones 7 0-2 14; Farmer 1 0-1 3; Sherman 0 0-0 0; Wikander 0 0-0 0; Wickham 0 0-0 0; Brown 2 0-1 4; Miller 3 2-6 8. TOTALS: 13 2-9 29.

CATHOLIC CENTRAL (12-7): L. Connor 1 0-0 2; A.J. Connor 5 8-10 19; DiBiase 1 1-2 3; Kilonsky 1 1-2 4; Vandeborne 4 2-6 10; Costello 0 0-0 0; Stoll 0 1-2 1. TOTALS 12 13-23 39.

3-POINT GOALS: Shenandoah (Farmer); Catholic Central (A.J. Connor, Kilonsky); REBOUNDS: Shenandoah 22 (Jones 10); Catholic Central 23 (Vandeborne 8); ASSISTS: Shenandoah 6 (Miller 3); Catholic Central 5 (Kilonsky 2); TURNOVERS: Shenandoah 9; Catholic Central 8.