Strong second half lifts Martins Ferry

As Jeff Sabatino gets up there in years, he’s doing his best to contain his emotions.

There’s always a little wiggle room, evidently.

After watching his Purple Riders turn in a lackluster first half of Wednesday’s game against Wheeling Central inside the Tolbert Gymnasium, which resulted in a 12-point Knights’ upperhand, Sabatino “blew a gasket” in the lockerroom at intermission.

“I wanted us to compete a lot more and a lot better than we did in the first half,” Sabatino said. “I know we’re sick, tired, hurt, but our guys looked older than me. I just wanted them to leave it on all on the court and feel like they needed to die at the end of the game.”

The message got across loud and clear.

The Purple Riders turned up the energy on both ends of the floor and eventually pulled away for a 58-49 victory, evening their record at 3-3 with a Friday date against Bellaire looming.

“I asked them after the game and every guy said he felt like he was going to die, which is how you should feel,” Sabatino confirmed. “I am really proud of the second-half effort. It was really special.”

The Maroon Knights, who hit six treys in the opening half, mustered only 18 second-half points all told, while the Purple Riders – using a strong balance of inside and outside – struck for 39 points.

“Right now, we’re at the point where we just have to learn to win games,” said Central head coach Mel Stephens. “We struggled last year and were never really in the position very much where we had leads. I thought (Ferry’s) all-out hustle was the key. They got every rebound and every loose ball. Plus, they out-toughed us.”

Like most teams do when they line up against the Riders, Central decided to work hard on the defensive end to limit the touches for senior standout Cody Schau, who is the area’s leading scorer.

With that happening with regularity in the first half, Sabatino challenged diminutive sophomore point guard Jake Barritt.

“We knew they were going to double Cody, so we told Jake we were going to kick him the ball,” Sabatino said. “I told him I didn’t care if they all fell down, he was going to shoot it right away.”

Barritt followed his coach’s instructions and buried a pair of bonus baskets, which ignited the third-quarter spurt. Those buckets forced the Central defense to respect him from deep, which created space for Schau, junior post Robert Vargo and senior Tyler Strama.

“After those shots, we were back in the game and it was just a matter of slugging it out,” Sabatino said.

Ferry trailed, 39-38, at the final break, but kept the momentum by scoring 10 of the first 14 in the fourth. A Schau leaner with just under five minutes to play put Ferry on top for good at 44-43.

“I thought we guarded better in the second half,” Sabatino said. “We switched who was guarding whom and I guess our matchups suited us a little better.”

The Knights got as close as three on three different occassions, but a strong 10-of-11 effort from the line in the fourth held the Knights off.

“I don’t know what it is,” Stephens said. “I think we played a little looser in the first half, but in the second half, we have to be able to play with the lead. We kind of bogged down and (Martins Ferry) made all of the plays.”

Schau led all scorers with 24 points. Barritt and Vargo each went for 11, while Strama finished with 10.

Justin Hammers led the Knights with 15 points, which came from five triples. Junior David Park finished with 14. Senior Brandon Wallace added nine and talented frosh Chase Harler came off the bench to score six.

Wheeling Central’s road gets no easier. The Knights will next take part in the sixth annual Cancer Research Classic against Mercersburg at 6 p.m. Friday. They then take on Wheeling Park on Tuesday.

The Riders made it a sweep with a victory in the reserve game.

WHEELING CENTRAL (49) – Hammers 5, 0-0 15; Park 6, 1-2 14; Stanley 0, 0-0 0; Harler 3, 0-0 6; Ingram 1, 0-0 2; Felton 0, 0-0 0; Manns 0, 1-2 1; Wallace 4, 1-4 9; Siebieda 1, 0-1 2; Totals: 20, 3-9 49. MARTINS FERRY (58) – Barritt 4, 1-2 11; Sears 0, 0-0 0; Burress 0, 0-0 0; Vargo 4, 3-3 11; Schau 8, 8-12 24; Appolloni 1, 0-0 2; Strama 2, 6-7 10; Totals: 19, 18-24 58.

Three-Point Goals: WC – Hammers (5), Park. MF – Barritt (2).

Staskey may be reached at