It might sound like a cliche, but the Athens Bulldogs are ready to turn the page to a new season.
Athens wrapped up a run of early-season non-league games on Saturday night, falling to the Jackson Ironmen, 65-55, inside McAfee Gymnasium.
The Bulldogs fell to 2-4 after their sixth non-league game of the season. They’ve been shorthanded for the last four games, and hope to get some reinforcements back when they host Nelsonville-York on Tuesday.
That will mark Athens’ Tri-Valley Conference Ohio Division opener, as the two-time defending league champions will put their crown on the line.
It starts a run of four straight TVC-Ohio games, as Athens isn’t scheduled to play another non-league game until Jan. 12.
“Basically, that’s our focus,” Athens coach Mickey Cozart said of TVC-Ohio schedule. “It’s our first goal, win another title, compete for a TVC title. I’ll spend all day tomorrow (Sunday) watching film. We’ll try and put together a game plan on Monday and we’ll see how that turns out on Tuesday night.”
The Bulldogs weren’t able to get a win against Jackson (4-0), but they did fight back against the Ironmen.
Athens trailed by 21 points at halftime, but got as close as five points in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter.
Cozart was disappointed in the Bulldogs’ first-half response to Jackson, but pleased with how they answered the bell after halftime.
“We’re having a hard time figuring out that extra gear,” he said. “When you get punched, you have to be able to fight back and we haven’t done that well enough. I thought we did in the second half. I thought we matched their intensity. I thought our guys started doing more of what we’re asking and put some pressure on the defense and start attacking the rim more.”
A major bright spot for Athens was the play of senior guard Brayden Whiting. He was held to six points in a loss Wednesday at Circleville, but responded with a 26-point effort against Jackson.
“I thought he played like Whiting should tonight,” Cozart said. “I think he’s that good. I think he can do that every night.”
Whiting scored all nine of Athens’ first quarter points, adding seven rebounds and four steals on the night.
“Tonight he came out and he was aggressive on the boards,” Coazart said. “He attacked more tonight. He didn’t just settle for jump shots, 3-pointers. If he can play like that very night, he can do that every night. He’s that talented.”
The Ironmen have graduated a 1,000-point scorer in each of the last two seasons, but showed off a balanced unit against the Bulldogs.
Evan Spires led them in scoring with 19 points on 6 of 9 shooting, adding nine rebounds, four steals and two assists.
Braxton Hammond was strong in the post with 17 points on 8 of 14 shooting with six steals and four assists. Drew Bragg had 12 points, while Boston Kuhn tallied eight points and seven rebounds. Tristan Prater came off the bench and scored seven points.
Athens had an early 7-2 lead, but Jackson ended the quarter on a 13-2 run to lead 15-9 after Bragg’s 3-pointer.
The Bulldogs trailed 19-16 after Will Matters’ 3-pointer, but would be held scoreless for the final 5:13 of the half.
Jackson ran off 18 straight points during that time frame, leading 37-16 when Hammond hit a contested jump shot to beat the halftime buzzer.
Jackson shot 16 of 33 in the first half and only had two turnovers.
In comparison, Athens was guilty of nine first-half turnovers. Hammond had a trio of fast-break run outs after steals.
For the game, Athens had 16 turnovers compared to nine for the Ironmen.
“It’s been a constant talking point with our players the entire season,” Cozart said. “The first three games we had almost 60 turnovers. We’re getting better, but we still have a problem when we get sped up. We don’t make good decisions. We did better in the second half.”
Jackson still led 41-20 after Spires scored early in the third quarter.
A turning point seemed to occur when Hammond had one of his six steals, and appeared to be heading toward another layup
However, he attempted to dunk the basketball. He missed, and instinctively hung on the rim with one hand to try and catch the rebound with the other.
He was whistled for a technical foul for hanging on the rim. Jackson would have gone ahead by 21 points had Hammond completed the fast-break, but instead Athens trailed 41-24 after two Whiting free throws.
It started an 11-2 run that saw Athens trail just 43-33 after a Whiting put back with 1:36 left in the third quarter.
Athens cut the deficit to single digits, 47-38, after Jake Sayers hit a corner 3-pointer in the opening minute of the fourth.
Jackson always had a counter to keep Athens at arm’s length. Spires’ corner 3-pointer and Bragg’s baseline drive allowed the Ironmen to go ahead 52-38.
Jackson would miss the front end of a one-and-the-bonus situation on three straight possessions however, eventually allowing Athens to trail 57-51 with 1:32 remaining after two Whiting free throws.
The Bulldogs were as close as 58-53 after Landon Wheatley scored after grabbing an offensive rebound with still 1:12 left.
Jackson regained control when Bragg made two free throws with 1:10 remaining. Whiting’s jumper put Athens down just 60-55, but Spires would make three free throws for a 63-55 edge.
When the Ironmen got another defensive stop, their win was secured as Kuhn made two final free throws with 17.2 seconds on the clock.
Matters added 12 points and six rebounds for the Bulldogs, while Sayers had nine points, seven rebounds and two assists. Derrick Welsh had six points, 12 rebounds and two blocked shots.