BYESVILLE - It was cast as a sectional opener; it would have been better served as a district finale.
Third-seeded Monroe Central and seventh-seeded Martins Ferry needed overtime to eventually settle their Division III sectional contest at Meadowbrook High Friday night between two quality clubs. Jeff Sabatino's Purple Riders, who made a magical regional run a year ago, eventually escaped with a hard-earned 61-59 verdict.
The victory was the Riders' 12th in 21 starts and propels them into the sectional finals against Buckeye Trail Friday, again at Meadowbrook High School. Trail coasted past Newcomerstown in the nightcap.
"I thought both teams played extremely well. I have seen Monroe Central four times this year, and I think this is the best they have played," Sabatino said. "But I think we also played really well.
"We had the game won about four times, but to Monroe's credit they kept coming back. They were relentless," he added. "I thought Scooter (Tolzda) did a tremendous job with his team. It's another case where it's a shame one team had to lose."
It was a matchup of Ferry's size and Monroe Central's ability to hit the trey. In the end, the size won out, but not before the Seminoles' relentless charges buried nine three-pointers.
Senior star Robert "Big Red" Vargo once again came up huge for the winners. The 6-6 all-state gridder led all scorers with 23 points and grabbed 14 boards.
Vargo's 6-8 frontcourt mate, sophomore Emilio Appolloni, turned in one of his best efforts of the season with 11 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists. Sophomore sharpshooter James Edwards delivered the outside punch with 14 points, including three treys.
Senior ace Bryan Duffy led the Monroe Countians with 21 points, nine coming on treys. Talented junior Zach Jorris delivered 16 markers, including four treys.
The loss ended Monroe Central's season with a deceiving 15-8 mark. The Seminoles were 5-0 when they lost standout Curtis Nixon for the season with a knee injury.
"It was a great game. We just came up one bucket short," said a dejected Tolzda. "My kids played hard and gave it all they had. We fought back several times.
"Ferry is tough to defend. Their size presents a lot of problems," he added. "They are able to get some easy baskets because of their size, while we have to scrap for every bucket. But Ferry is a quality basketball team."
Martins Ferry owned the opening quarter, racing to a 17-10 advantage at the break with all five starters scoring, led by Edwards' eight. Duffy countered with four for Monroe.
The tide turned the Seminoles way in the second quarter. Duffy delivered eight points and Seth Alleman netted six as Tolzda's troops doubled up the Purple 18-9 in the frame, yielding a 28-26 Monroe halftime advantage.
Vargo exploded for a big third quarter, netting 11 points, enabling the Riders to regain the upperhand at 46-43 entering the action-filled fourth period.
Ferry was in control at 53-43 at the 5:20 lighting. The Purple Riders quickly became their own worst enemy, as the Seminoles stepped up their pressure, forcing a rash of Purple miscues. After Duffy meshed a free throw, Monroe found itself down just 53-50 with just under four minutes to go.
A Vargo hoop temporarily quelled the Monroe surge. The Seminoles, however, parlayed a trey by Duffy, three more Ferry turnovers and another hoop to gain the lead at 56-55 with 1:02 to play.
Monroe had a chance to stretch the lead but misfired at the foul line, giving Ferry new life. Junior point guard Jake Barritt made the most of the opportunity, meshing a free throw with 17 ticks remaining. A Monroe shot at the buzzer failed to find the mark, resulting in four more minutes of play.
Barritt tallied the first bucket in overtime before Monroe's Jorris countered with a trey at the 1:44 mark and a 59-58 Seminole edge.
Vargo gave Ferry the lead for good with two charity tosses. Edwards added another freebie with 1:03 showing, good for a 61-59 Purple lead.
Monroe patiently worked for its final shot. However, its final three attempt was partially blocked by Appolloni to secure the Riders' triumph.
"We defended very well on that final possession. The kids wanted to go man but the zone has been our meal ticket," Sabatino said. "We are playing with just one senior and a lot of young kids and at times their youth was exposed. But we hung tough and did what we needed to do."