TOLEDO – Twice the magical ride Evergreen has been on all season should have been over.
In both Division III boys basketball district games the Vikings found themselves on life support offensively in the second half, down nine points and in danger of being sent home for the season.
And twice, spurred on by massive crowds at Toledo Central Catholic’s Sullivan Center, the Vikings came from facing the Grim Reaper, to reaching the Promised Land. They used sophomore Evan Lumbrezer’s late basket against Cardinal Stritch to grab a 44-43 win in the district semifinal Thursday, then roared back from a 30-21 hole to beat Archbold, 42-39 in the title game Saturday, reaching the Ohio Division III Regionals for the fourth time in coach Jerry Keifer’s storied career.
“Each one is a little different,” a very happy Keifer said of this district title. “These guys are so connected, they’re resilient. Again, despite what people say sometimes (that) we are a two man team, it’s everyone making plays that make us successful.”
Forward Justin Wiggins canned a trio of first quarter bombs from outside the arc to help give Stritch a 9-4 lead.
Ethan Loeffler’s spin move, then two Mason Loeffler passes to Nate Brighton and Jack Etue got Evergreen back to a two-point margin at 12-10 at the quarter.
Brighton’s drop-step bucket tied the game 12 seconds into the second, then when he missed the ensuing “and-one” at the line, the 6’5” senior scooped up the rebound through a bewildered foursome of Stritch players and scored to give Evergreen their first lead at 14-12.
That basket put Brighton at the 1,000 point milestone in his career but he was far from finished for the night.
In fact, he was far from done for the quarter as he scored all 13 Evergreen points, including 3-of-3 from the line when he was fouled shooting a triple at the buzzer to give Evergreen a 23-16 lead at half.
However, in the third after being held to 6-of-23 from the floor in the first half, Stritch heated up, getting easy baskets from their vaunted press to go back on top.
Jhaiden Wilson scored six times in the quarter on layups, Wiggins hit another triple and Brandon Burks did the same in a 23-7 run that put Stritch up 39-30 heading into the fourth.
While Stritch was going 10-for-14 from the floor in the quarter, Evergreen committed seven turnovers and was just 3-of-8 from the field.
Lumbrezer was guilty of four of those turnovers during the Stritch run, but with his team getting last rites, the Vikes’ point guard began to administer CPR.
CJ Hauk and Etue found Brighton for layups to get Evergreen within 39-34 in the first 75 seconds of the quarter.
Lumbrezer got loose on a backcut to shave the lead to 39-36 with 6:00 left, then after his steal, Brighton scored off his own miss to get the Vikes within a point.
Joey Holifield split two free throws to double the lead but Etue again found Brighton inside to tie the game with 2:55 to go.
Again it was Lumbrezer.
Again on a backcut from Mason Loeffler to give Evergreen the lead back with 2:10 left, 42-40.
“We got some stops and reminded them that in the first half we were going inside to Nate,” Keifer said. “I think three straight possessions we got it down there to get us within three real quick.
“We kept doing it and got us down one then finally got a lead.”
Wiggins got loose in the corner and drained a three-ball 19 seconds later – Stritch’s only field goal of the quarter – for a 43-42 Stritch lead.
Holifield had a chance to extend that margin with 32 seconds left, but with the overflow of Viking fans screaming, Stritch’s all-time leading scorer missed setting up one last chance for the Vikings.
After running the clock down to eight seconds, Keifer called timeout, and after seeing Stritch’s defensive set, called another.
When Mason Loeffler slipped on his screen and cut before the inbounds, the Vikings called timeout once again to set up one last play.
Brighton received the inbounds near the foul circle and when Lumbrezer’s defender came from the backside to double, he found the 5’10” point guard by himself for a layup with four seconds left to put Evergreen on top.
“That play isn’t exactly how it’s supposed to go,” said Keifer. “Evan is actually supposed to go to the corner but when his guy left to double Nate he snuck in there.
“Being a sophomore and dealing with the pressure he had some of the most horrific turnovers in the third quarter, and I haven’t seen that out of him all year,” Keifer said. “We ended up taking him off the top for a possession or two just to give him a break. Then in the fourth he scores six points all late. He bounced back, he had a couple of great assists, and the game-winner.”
Wilson’s heave from just inside halfcourt, which finished an 0-for-11 night from outside the three-point line for the high-scoring junior, wasn’t even close.
Evergreen shot 7-for-8 in the fourth quarter with six assists on the seven field goals.
After that blistering 71 percent third, Stritch could only manage 1-of-9 in the fourth from the floor as the Vikings forced them one-and-out nearly every possession.
“I think we did well enough defensively to get it out of Joey’s hands and get it out of Jhaiden Wilson’s hands and they started taking bad shots,” explained Keifer.
Brighton had 25 points along with 14 rebounds, four blocked shots and three assists – the last to Lumbrezer being the biggest of the night.
In the nightcap, Archbold fell behind early 7-4 but Noah Gomez keyed a 12-3 end to the first quarter with a second chance basket, a steal and score, and 3-of-4 from the foul line to boost the Streaks on top 16-10 over Ottawa Hills.
AJ George’s triple with 36 seconds left in the half got Ottawa Hills back to 20-18 at half, as Archbold shot just 2-of-8 in the second quarter.
Like Stritch did in the first game, Ottawa Hills heated up in the third, going 6-for-11 – two of those from senior John Kight – to go from two down to three ahead at 30-27 heading into the fourth.
Like the first game, Archbold clamped down defensively in the fourth.
While Ottawa Hills was going 1-for-8, the Streaks got a three-ball from Alex Roth to tie the game with 5:42 left.
After Eli VanSlooten regained an Ottawa Hills lead, Ethan Hagans’ basket forged a 32-32 tie with 4:40 left and Elijah Zimmerman took over from there.
The Streaks’ go-to guy scored on back-to-back possessions to give Archbold the lead, then they extended it to four with 1:30 left.
“That’s the kind of player he has been all year long,” Archbold coach Joe frank said of his senior leader. “He’s been a three-year starter, he’s played in a lot of big games for us.”
Gomez’ two from the stripe closed out Ottawa Hills and pushed Archbold into the district title game.
“We certainly defined a little bit of ugliness at the offensive end,” said Frank. “But our kids competed for 32 minutes and that’s all I can ask. We were able to survive.”
Zimmerman’s 13 points led all scorers while Gomez added 10.
Again Evergreen jumped on top in the title game as Mason Loeffler hit four times from the three-point line…including a 65-footer at the first quarter horn to give Evergreen a 16-12 lead.
Lumbrezer’s steal and three-point play pumped that gap to 19-12 a minute into the second, but from that point Evergreen began a drought of 1-for-14 from the field that spanned the next 13 minutes.
During that time Archbold took advantage, outscoring the Vikings 18-2.
Gomez’ 3-pointer began the run at the 5:02 mark of the second and it was Zimmerman’s basket with 1:15 on the clock that gave Archbold a 22-21 lead at the break.
While the Vikings continued to misfire in the third, Alex Roth tripled, Zimmerman scored on a putback and Trey Theobald scored on a backcut from Gomez to push the Streaks up 30-21.
Like a cat with nine lives, Evergreen was on eight and a half.
“I called timeout with three minutes to go in the third and said ‘hey look we’re down nine but we still have 11 minutes left and Thursday night we only had eight minutes left,” explained Keifer.
It was Loeffler who broke the scoring drought with a three-point play off a forced leaner with 2:00 left on the clock.
Then Brighton drilled a triple off an out-of-bounds play to get the Vikes back to 30-27 at the third quarter buzzer.
It was Brighton again with a stickback 40 ticks into the fourth to get Evergreen back to a one point game.
Austin Roth’s triple extended the Archbold lead to 33-29, but Lumbrezer found Brighton inside to make it a two-point game with 5:45 to go.
Hagans went 2-for-2 from the foul line but Loeffler knocked home his fifth triple of the game at the 4:35 mark to make it 35-34.
Brighton’s one and bonus from the stripe gave the Vikings the lead with 3:40 left and on a run out off a Streak miss, Loeffler slammed one home with 2:55 left for a three-point Evergreen lead.
“We only had one personal foul at the time in the second half,” Keifer said of the defensive effort that turned the game in the Vikings favor. “We turned them over a couple of times which was good for us to get back into it.”
Hagans’ spin move chopped the deficit to a point again at 38-37 with 1:14 left.
Evergreen, in ball control mode, milked 48 seconds off before Loeffler was fouled with 22.6 left.
The senior guard hit nothing but net on both but Gomez got to the rim to again get Archbold back to a one-point margin with 11.7 left.
Brighton was fouled on the next inbounds and after swishing the first, the second hit back iron, went high and then fell through to again give Evergreen a three-point lead.
Archbold had one last shot but Zimmerman’s triple try with Lumbrezer all over him was off, setting off a celebration of Viking fans who packed Central’s facility a second time.
“Mason was really good early and Nate got going later but how big of free throws did they hit,” Keifer exclaimed. “When we had to get the lead to three, they both knocked them down and that last one of Nate’s it probably would’ve hit the shot clock it was that high.
“We were in three-point defense, we did our job and they didn’t get a good look and we get to move on.”
Despite that 1-of-14 abberation, Evergreen shot 14-of-32 for the game. Archbold was 15-of-38.
Loeffler had 22 points and Brighton 13 to lead Evergreen. Gomez had 14 for Archbold.
The win was number 367 in Keifer’s career.
“It’s just surreal for me,” stated Keifer. “The first two times we went to regionals was two in three years, then after 10 you wonder if you’re ever going to get back, and it’s happened again and I can’t be happier for my kids. I can’t be happier for our fans.”
The Vikings now play Johnstown-Monroe Wednesday night at the Stroh Center on the campus of Bowling Green State University. Tip-off is at 6:15 p.m.
Reach Joe Blystone at firstname.lastname@example.org