ST. CLAIRSVILLE - The Division III Eastern District Tournament had everything everyone expected Tuesday evening.
There was a huge crowd, great atmosphere and two evenly matched teams laying it on the line for 32 minutes.
The most unfortunate thing was that one of those teams had to lose.
Martins Ferry’s Robert Vargo goes up for a shot against Union Local’s David Paulick as Emilio Appolloni looks on during second-half action.
Martins Ferry’s James Edwards goes up for a shot against Union Local’s Trenton Tipton. Trailing the play for Union Local are Gavin Porter (left) and Colton McKivitz (right).
Union Local’s Kaleb McDiffitt looks to drive against Martins Ferry’s Jake Barritt.
Martins Ferry proved the adage that it's tough to beat a team three times to be true inside the Health and Physical Education Center on the campus of Ohio University Eastern.
The upstart Purple Riders, who were the seventh seed in the sectional, used a strong fourth quarter to upset top-seeded Union Local, 52-49, to earn their second straight trip to the district title game.
"This team is playing at a very high level at the right time of the year, which is our goal every year," Martins Ferry head coach Jeff Sabatino said. "We're usually pretty good this time of year. We're a really young team, but I like how we're playing and when push came to show, we made plays."
While the Riders are headed back to practice today to prepare for another meeting with Garaway, which dispatched Fort Frye, 48-44, in the opener, the Jets complete their season with an impressive 22-2 record.
"I am happy with my guys," said UL head coach Ben Porter, who had his team atop the Associated Press' Division III poll for several weeks before finishing third. "I thought we played hard, and that's all we can ask for. Everyone left it on the court and that's all you can ask from a high school kid."
Ironically, both of Union Local's setbacks came at OUE. It fell to Steubenville in the OVAC 4A final last month.
"The kids will have a chance to look back and remember this season, but hopefully, we can build on it, too," Porter said. "We've got a lot of guys coming back, so the question is, 'how badly do they want to get better?'"
There were a handful of times when it seemed like the Jets were set to embark on one of their trademark runs and open up the margin a bit. However, each time, the Riders had an answer.
Late in the first half, the Jets owned their biggest lead at 25-17, but the Riders closed with the final six points of the half.
As Sabatino was trying to recall the first half in his mind, he felt Union Local might have owned a much healthier upperhand. If it weren't for the play of Emilio Appolloni. The 6-ft-8 sophomore delivered one of his finest outings. He nearly single handedly kept the Riders in the contest, scoring nine of his 13 in the first half.
"We were out of sync early, but Emilio made baskets and free throws," Sabatino said. "If Emilio isn't making those shots, we might have been down 18 and just Katy bar the door! We knew we were very fortunate to be in the game at halftime because we didn't play well."
The Jets, basically unfazed by the Riders' run, came out in the third and do what they do. They knocked in three shots from behind the arc, but another late spurt by the Riders, fueled by senior standout Robert Vargo and Appolloni, made it a 38-35 Jets' lead after three.
"They make threes, that's what they do," Sabatino said. "And we don't!"
The Riders took the lead at 39-38 on back-to-back buckets by sophomore James Edwards and Vargo. However, the Jets responded with four consecutive makes at the foul line to take a 42-39 lead.
"Coach Sab can talk about how they're young, but they're tournament tested," Porter said. "We expected nothing less than the fight we were in."
The Riders proceeded to score the next seven points. Vargo knocked in a short jumper and Edwards netted five in a row, including a conventional three-point play to put Ferry up, 46-42 with just over three minutes to play.
The Jets, who have battled back to win plenty of close games during the course of the season, got two free throws from junior Colton McKivitz and a deep triple from senior Eric Dunfee to take a 47-46 lead.
The lead was short lived. Ferry's Arjay Burress muscled up a bucket on the interior, but junior Kaleb McDiffitt put the Jets back on top on the ensuing trip with a jumper.
The Riders didn't press any panic buttons after watching UL regain the lead. They just went into Vargo, who admitted after the game that he'd been waiting for a possible rematch with Union Local for more than a month.
"Union Local's a very good team," Vargo said. "I felt like we let one slip away (at Union Local), so that makes this really special. I am just so proud of how we fought and hung in there down the stretch."
The Eastern District's Player of the Year and all-Ohio candidate powered up for his 20th point of the game.
"Robert really got fouled on that play, and the ball spun away, and somehow, it still went in," Sabatino recalled. "That was probably the key to the game."
The Jets had a good look from behind the arc, but it was too long and Edwards rebounded. After UL fouled three more times to finally send the Riders to the line, Edwards found the bottom of the net twice for the 52-49 cushion.
"In all three of our (tournament) wins, at the end of the games, we've had some fortune, so maybe that evens out over 38 years," Sabatino said. "We're scrappy and when the game's on the line, we'd rather die than lose. That was evident tonight because we got a couple of huge (defensive) stops toward the end and found a couple of rebounds."
Union Local had three really good looks, but failed to get any to drop, setting off a wild celebration for the Purple Riders.
"I told our kids don't hang their heads because they have no reason to," Porter said. "We had our chances today, but a couple shots didn't go down and that's basketball."
Ferry was extremely balanced in the scoring column. Vargo's production leaves him just five points short of 1,000 in his career.
"I thought we did a pretty good job on Vargo in the first two games, but, in the second half, he played like a kid who wasn't going to be denied," Porter said.
Appolloni and Edwards went for 13 and 11, respectively. Junior guard Jake Barritt only recorded one bucket, but he handled the floor game well and was a menace on defense.
Union Local was led by talented sophomore Trenton Tipton for the third straight tournament game. He poured in 15 points. McDiffitt and sophomore David Paulick evenly split 18.
"Union Local is a quality basketball team and played great like they always do," Sabatino said. "We just ended up with more points."
MARTINS FERRY (52) - Vargo 8, 4-6 20; Appolloni 4, 5-6 13; Barritt 1, 0-0 2; Burress 2, 0-0 4; Edwards 3, 5-5 11; Agnew 1, 0-0 2; Totals: 19, 14-17 52. UNION LOCAL (49) - McDiffitt 4, 0-0 9; McKivitz 0, 5-6 5; Porter 2, 2-2 8; T. Tipton 6, 0-0 15; Dunfee 1, 0-0 3; Paulick 4, 1-1 9; Totals: 17, 8-9 49.
3-point goals: MF - None. UL - Porter (2), T. Tipton (3), McDiffitt, Dunfee.