ATHENS EDGES MID-VALLEY, 42-40, FOR FIRST STATE PLAYOFF WIN SINCE 1956

By: Tim Birney | AthensWildcats.com | March 8, 2022 | Photo courtesy David Alliger

 
ATHENS EDGES MID-VALLEY, 42-40, FOR FIRST STATE PLAYOFF WIN SINCE 1956
 

SCRANTON — Senior J.J. Babcock made big play after big play, senior Ryan Thompson canned a clutch 3-pointer, and senior Tucker Brown scored the game-winning points for the second time in three postseason games as Athens fended off a strong second-half effort by Mid-Valley to pull out a 42-40 win in the opening round of the PIAA Class 4A boys basketball playoffs here Tuesday night at Lackawanna College.

It’s the first state playoff win for Athens program since 1956, and only the second in school history.

“It’s been a long time,” said Athens coach Jim Lister. “It’s an awesome win.

“I’m so happy for our kids, for our program, and for our school,” added Lister. “I couldn’t be more proud of this team.”

Babcock said he wasn’t ready for his Athens playing career to end.

“It was desperation,” he said. “It was win-or-go-home for us. We have a bunch of seniors on this team, and we really did not want this to be our last game.

“It feels great,” added Babcock. “Words can’t describe, it’s just a great feeling to keep our season moving forward.”

Brown, who hit a pair of free throws in the closing seconds of Athens’ win over Shamokin in the District 4 semifinals, said he and his teammates have been through it before.

“We’ve been playing together since I was in 8th-grade, and the rest of them have been playing together longer than that,” he sad. “We know each other … we had to keep our composure, and we did a pretty good job of it. It got a little chippy and there were a lot of fouls, but in the end, we pulled it back together and got the win.

“It’s unbelievable. I just can’t wait to play again.” added Brown.

“I think senior leadership played a big part, these kids have been playing together a long time,” said Lister.

“If you look at this team, these senior are battle-tested over the last two years,” noted Lister. “They’ve played some unbelievable basketball games against some of the best teams around.

“These kids have worked hard, and they deserve all the accolades they’re getting,” he added. “They just don’t quit, no matter how tight it is. I love them for that.”

Both team struggled out of the gate offensively, and Babcock’s 3-pointer with 4:21 remaining in the first quarter gave the Wildcats a 5-2 lead, but Danny Nemitz answered moments later for Mid-Valley to tie the game.

Senior Nalen Carling scored off a feed from Babcock with 2:35 left to make it 7-5, and Lister scored of an assist from Babcock 45 seconds later to make it 9-5.

The Spartans tied the game at 9-9 on a free throw with 6:39 remaining in the first half, but Lister drained a 3-pointer from the top-of-the-key 26 seconds later to give the Wildcats a 12-9 lead.

Mid-Valley scored back-to-back buckets to take a 13-12 lead with 4:48 remaining in the first half, but the Wildcats started pounding the ball into the paint, and finished the half to an 11-4 spurt to take a 24-16 lead into the halftime locker room.

Babcock scored a pair of buckets in the run, including a short jumper with 27 seconds remaining to give the Wildcats their biggest lead of the game, at 24-15. Senior Troy Pritchard scored the first bucket in the run, and Brown added a big 3-pointer into the mix.

Lister was impressed with his team’s patience on offense in the first half.

“We worked on it last night for two hours,” he said. “We knew we were going to see man-to-man today.

“We are constantly working on it — being patient, making cuts, getting the ball to the right player, and try to get something in the paint,” added Lister. “I thought we did that well in the first half, especially in the last four minutes of the second quarter, which gave us a nice halftime lead.”

The Spartans, however, seized the momentum to start the second half, and used an 8-0 run to tie the game at 24-24 with 4:30 remaining in the third quarter.

“We stalled on offense,” said Lister. “We came out in the second half and didn’t follow the plan. The plan was to get the ball inside, and I thought we did a good job the last three or four minutes of the second quarter — getting the ball inside to J.J. (Babcock), and getting some easy buckets.

“I wanted to come out in the third quarter and do that again, but (Mid-Valley) switched up their defense, and I think it confused us a little bit, and we let them crawl back into the game,” noted Lister.

The teams battled evenly until Brown knocked down a pair of free throws with 9.9 seconds remaining to give the Wildcats a 30-28 lead heading into the final eight minutes.

Lister connected on a short jumper with 6:58 left in the game to up the Athens advantage to 32-28, but Nimitz answered with a 3-pointer, and Gabe Tanner knocked down a pair of free throws to give the Spartans a 33-32 lead.

Athens missed the front ends of two one-and-ones, sandwiched around a bucket by Tanner, and trailed 35-32 with 4:51 remaining in the game.

With 4:01 remaining, Thompson drained a 3-pointer from the left wing to tie the game at 35-35. Just 20 seconds later, after a steal by Babcock, Brown scored on a strong drive to the bucket to give the Wildcats a 37-35 lead.

“How ‘bout Ryan Thompson coming off the bench and hitting that big-time 3(-pointer) to tie the game,” said Lister. “Honestly, I think that really sparked us … we saw the finish line at that point, and finished strong.”

After junior Chris Mitchell drew a charge, Babcock scored in the low blocks with 3:12 left in the game to make it 39-35.

However, Nemitz and Tanner each went 2-for-2 at the line to tie the game at 39-39 with 50 seconds remaining.

The Wildcats worked the ball on its next possession, then Brown took a pass off a screen at the top-of-the-key, and drove hard to the bucket, kissing it off the glass to make it 41-39 with 22 seconds in the game.

“I saw my teammates clear out, and I saw an opening. I took it hard, and hoped for the best,” said Brown.

“Down the left-side of the lane is Tucker’s money,” said Lister. “If you give him an inch there, he’s going to finish. It was a beautiful move, and a great take.”

Mid-Valley rushed the ball up court, and in a flurry that saw the ball in the hands of two different Athens players, ended up in-bounding the ball under their bucket with 9 seconds remaining.

The in-bounds play was executed perfectly and the Spartans got a point-blank look at the rim, but the ball rolled off the rim, and Lister rebounded it with 5.9 seconds remaining.

Lister made the second of two free throws to make it 42-39.

Before Mid-Valley could get the ball up court to attempt a game-tying 3-pointer, Athens fouled Nemitz in the backcourt with 2.3 seconds remaining.

Nemitz made the first, then had the second roll off the rim. Babcock rebounded the miss, and fired a pass up the floor, which Tucker chased down as the final buzzer sounded.

“We played really good defense,” said Lister. “If you can hold a high school team to 40 points in the state playoffs, you have a good shot to win the game.

“It’s a team win — everyone contributed a little something to get us the W,” added Lister.

Babcock led Athens with 14 points, six rebounds, three assists, four blocked shots, and four steals, while Lister had 10 points and five rebounds, and Brown had nine points, four assists, and four steals.

Carling added five points, two assists, and two steals in the win, and Pritchard and Mitchell each grabbed four rebounds.

Tanner led Mid-Valley with 15 points, and Nemitz added 14.

Athens will face Archbishop Carroll in the Sweet 16.

 

About the Author

Tim Birney Author Bio
Tim Birney

Tim Birney is the founder / owner of River Road Media Group. He was born and raised in the Valley, graduating from Waverly High School in 1984.

Birney earned an Associate's Degree in Journalism from SUNY Morrisville in 1986 and a Bachelor's Degree in Journalism / Public Relations from Utica College of Syracuse University in 1988. He began his newspaper career at The Daily Review in Towanda in 1989, before moving on to The Evening Times in 1995. He spent more than 10 years at the Times, the last four as Managing Editor.

River Road Media Group includes Valley Sports Report (launched Aug. 10, 2009), Tioga County (NY) Sports Report (Aug. 13, 2018), and Northern Tier Sports Report (Aug. 31, 2020). Southern Tier Sports Report is set to launch in 2021.