Undersized Minerva started slow and towering Alliance capitalized, fighting off a spirited comeback by its Eastern Buckeye Conference rival to secure a 61-57 win Friday night in Harry Fails Gymnasium.
Even though it was outscored 45-36 in the last three quarters, Alliance (10-2, 7-1) had built enough of an early cushion to defeat Minerva (4-10, 1-7) for the second time this season.
"Minerva is a well-coached team, their kids play hard and they have one of the best players in the league," Alliance coach Larry Kukura said.
The Aviators handed the Lions a 57-44 setback in the first game at Minerva, exploiting a 27-3 third-quarter outburst to overcome a four-point halftime deficit.
In the rematch, Alliance grabbed a 25-12 lead after the first quarter with a starting five standing 6-foot-8, 6-6, 6-3 and 6-3. With no starter taller than 6-1, Minerva kept playing and won the fourth quarter 21-14, relying on a full-court press that caused seven Alliance turnovers.
"We look like a 6-foot-and-under team and we really only go six deep, but these kids just keep husting and fighting the whole way," Minerva coach Shawn Green said. "I'm so proud of them."
Alliance was led in scoring by 6-8 post Stephen Gales with 14 points, while 6-6 forward Diego Allen and 5-9 point guard Gage Ford contributed 13 points apiece. Minerva held 6-3 forward K'Vaughn Davis, who produced consecutive double-figure scoring games in back-to-back double-digit wins over West Branch, to seven points and 6-3 forward Brendam Zurbrugg, the starting quarterback who revealed on Twitter he received a Division I offer from Toledo, scoreless.
"We concentrated on defending Zurbrugg, because he's an outstanding outside shooter and a player I consider their 'glue' guy," Green said. "The problem is they have so much length and they also have good depth."
That depth helped Alliance finish with a 14-6 in bench points. Darius Rodriguez tallied six points, while Ramhir Hawkins and Marquavian McLendon contributed four points apiece. All three non-starters played critical minutes in the fourth quarter, with the 6-0 McLendon netting all four of his markers in the final 2:36. Rodriguez knocked down two of four Alliance 3-point field goals.
"We've worked hard on building our bench," Kukura said. "It has really grown since the start of the season. We feel we have a solid [eight-man] rotation."
Minerva was led by 6-0 senior Brayden Costea with a game-high 28 points, with 18 of his points coming on six of his team's 10 3-point field goals. Six-one senior point guard Connor Shingleton added 11 points, including seven during seven in the fourth quarter when the Lions outscored the Aviators 21-14.
"Shawn does a great job getting his kids ready to play," Kukura said. "They're a hard team to beat."
Minerva freshman guard Jayder Yerger tallied eight points and 6-0 non-starter Peyton Rich added six points. Yerger and Rich both converted two treys.
"This is a super inexperienced team, but this is the most coachable team I've had at Minerva," Green said.
In the first quarter, the Aviators were clicking at the offensive end. Ford netted seven points, Allen netted six points and Davis added five points. Costea countered with three triples, but Alliance led 25-12 at the end of the first quarter.
Allen swished a 3-pointer from the right side to extend the Alliance lead to 30-16 at the 5:26 mark of the second quarter before Minerva rallied. Costea answered with a 3-point play at the 2:59 mark, then beat the halftime buzzer with a deep three from outside the circle to fuel a 13-4 run and cut the Aviators' lead to 34-29, with a second half left to be played.
"Costea is having a great season (offensively)," Kukura said. "He (also) score well against us the first game (26 points) and he was coming off a big game (32 points) in their last game against Akron Springfield (a 60-52 Minerva win)."
Regrouping in the third quarter, the Aviators outscored the Lions 13-7. Playing with the poise of a three-year veteran, Ford scored in transition and on a mid-range jumper, then fed Allen on a lob and whipped a pass to Rodriguez for a wide-open triple, factoring in Alliance's final nine points of the quarter.
"Ford gives us leadership and has the experience to make good decisions," Kukura said. "He's also getting healthier from those (ankle injuries) he suffered early."
Continuing to make an impact in the fourth quarter, Ford gave Alliance a 51-38 lead on a reverse lay-up with 6:31 remaining.
The Aviators, who were content to play a half-court game, appeared in great shape, but Minerva picked up the tempo full-court with a press. That strategy was greeted by two straight Alliance miscues, including a steal and lay-up by Shingleton following a lazy, cross-court pass.
The faster tempo helped the Lions shave their deficit, but McLendon's mid-range jumper and subsequent free throws created enough separation, even though Minerva battled to the end, with Costea ending the scoring with a 3-pointer from the right corner.
"Alliance has height, they have depth and they're a good 3-point shooting team, but our kids just went out and defended and fought," said Green, whose team had a two-game winning streak snapped. "I'm proud of them."
This article originally appeared on The Alliance Review: Alliance defeats Minerva in EBC boys hoops on Friday