ATHENS - Martins Ferry knew it was in for a big challenge coming to Ohio University Wednesday night.
It took just about two minutes for the Purple Riders to fully realize it after the state-ranked Ironton Tigers scored the first seven points of the contest basically in the blink of an eye.
From there, outside of a few first-half mini spurts by the Riders, it was all Tigers, who cruised to a 85-54 victory in the Division III regional semifinal at the Convo on the campus of Ohio University.
MARTINS FERRY seniors Cody Schau, left, and Tyler Strama look on as the final
seconds tick off the clock Wednesday night in Athens. The Purple Riders dropped an 85-54
decision to Ironton in the Division III?regional
semifinals. Additional images can be found at cu.timesleader-online.com
MARTINS FERRY’S Robert Vargo shoots over top of Ironton’s Josh Glover Wednesday night in Athens.
Ironton, now 22-2, will return to OU on Saturday night to meet Oak Hill, which dispatched Piketon in the nightcap, for a trip to the Division III State Final Four.
Martins Ferry, meanwhile, finished its season with a 14-9 record, after putting together an impressive tournament run.
"That's a very, very good basketball team we just faced," said Martins Ferry head coach Jeff Sabatino. "I thought we fought back well in the first half, but we just ran out of gas. We play physical, but they're more physical, athletic and fast. They were everything everyone said they were and more. I hope they win the whole thing."
The Riders, who were making their first appearance in the regional tournament since 1998, had no answer for Ironton's dynamic senior duo of Zac Carter and Trey Fletcher. Combined, those two outscored the Purple Riders, 60-54.
While Sabatino knew Carter and Fletcher were the players who made the Tigers go, he didn't know they'd shoot as well from behind the 3-point line as they did. Carter was 6-of-12 from deep, while Fletcher, who stands 6-6, was 3-of-5.
"We scouted them, had some film on them and they don't usually take or make many threes," Sabatino said. "Tonight, Carter made six and the big kid made three. So, on top of everything else, they hit 10, 3-pointers ... my goodness."
The Riders, who never led in the game, found themselves down 14-10 after one and the margin was 36-25 at the half.
However, the Tigers outscored the Riders, 31-14 in the third. Carter and Fletcher did much of the damage. Fletcher scored 10 points in that period alone.
"They have everything you need to be a really good basketball team," Sabatino said. "In Division III, they're going to be awful tough to stop."
While the Tigers' duo was filling it up, Martins Ferry senior Cody Schau did everything he could and more to help keep the Riders in it.
"We just played a really good team," Schau said. "Offensively, they were really good. We just couldn't stop them. I think they had more energy than we did in the second half."
Schau capped his impressive prep career with a 32-point outburst. He knocked down 14-of-24 shots from the field. He also grabbed five rebounds.
Senior Tyler Strama, who is the Riders' heart-and-soul, banged his way to 10 points and four rebounds. Junior Robert Vargo finished with 10 points and five boards.
"I love this team," Sabatino said. "This is a team of over-achievers and a team that bought into everything we tried to preach. It's a team that executes the game plan without question. We only had two seniors, one of whom (Strama) just guts it out and the other one (Schau) is the most underrated player we've ever had. I don't know how it'll shake out, but I think he's a first-team all-state player."
Though the outcome wasn't what Sabatino, the players or the large following of Rider faithful, which made the trip had hoped for, it won't dampen or overshadow the accomplishments that the Riders did put forth.
"I am proud of my guys," Sabatino said. "We've got a bunch of youngsters out there who battle like crazy and here we are in the regional. Our kids are already talking about making arrangements to see if we can get back here."
Martins Ferry out-rebounded Ironton, 32-30. However, the Riders were also guilty of 20 turnovers, which was 16 more than the winners.
MARTINS FERRY (54) - Barritt 0, 0-0 0; Vargo 5, 0-1 10; Schau 14, 3-4 32; Appolloni 1, 0-0 2; Strama 4, 2-2 10; Sears 0, 0-0 0; Burress 0, 0-0 0; Edwards 0, 0-0 0; D. Schau 0, 0-0 0; Shane 0, 0-0 0; Rine 0, 0-0 0; Agnew 0, 0-0 0; Totals: 24, 5-8 54. IRONTON (85) - Carter 12, 7-7 37; Glover 1, 0-0 2; White 3, 2-3 8; Fletcher 8, 4-5 23; Stephens 0, 0-0 0; Boykin 1, 0-0 2; Bowling 2, 0-0 4; Garred 1, 0-0 2; Cox 3, 0-0 7; Totals: 31, 13-15 85.
3-Point Goals: MF - Schau. I - Carter (6), Fletcher (3), Cox.
Staskey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org