Van Wert’s A.J. Smith drives the ball on an Elida defender in a game at the Elida Fieldhouse Friday. The Cougars lost a heartbreaker at the buzzer, 62-60. (Times Bulletin/Tina Eley)
Van Wert’s A.J. Smith drives the ball on an Elida defender in a game at the Elida Fieldhouse Friday. The Cougars lost a heartbreaker at the buzzer, 62-60. (Times Bulletin/Tina Eley)

Times Bulletin Correspondent

ELIDA - With the score tied at 60 and the clock ticking down, everybody knew the play was designed to go to Elida junior Dakota Mathias - and everybody was wrong. Coach Denny Thompson set Mathias up as a decoy to free Ebin Stratton for a lob underneath.
Point guard Louis Gray chose not to risk the lob to the open Stratton, however, giving the ball to Mathias, who drilled a buzzer-beating 17-footer from straight out, despite being well covered, to win it for the Bulldogs. Elida is now 8-3 overall and 3-0 in the Western Buckeye League. Van Wert is 6-4 and 2-1.

Only an incredible fourth quarter by the visitors made Mathias's game-winner necessary. Mathias started the fourth period with a 15-foot banker to put the Dogs on top 55-41, a seemingly safe margin. The feisty Cougars, however, were far from finished. AJ Smith nailed a three from the left wing, but Elida sophomore Austin Allemeier hit an open layup on a dandy pass from Mathias - 57-44 with 6:23 left. Aided by a slew of Elida turnovers, however, Van Wert went on a splendid 12-0 run - Nik Wolford layup (Joey Hurless assist), Hurless spinning layup, Wolford put-back, Connor Holliday baseline drive/layup, four straight free throws by Smith - 57-56, Elida, at 2:41.

Allemeier, however, then canned the second biggest shot of the game - a trifecta from straight away - to push the lead to 60-56 at 1:35. Smith slashed through the Bulldog defense for a layup to cut it to 60-58, and a Wolford interception led to a Hurless breakaway layup to tie it at 60 with 51 ticks left on the clock. That set the stage for the game-winner.

"I was setting a back screen for Ebin," said Mathias. "I was just a decoy. When I saw it wasn't gonna be there, I just went and got it and tried to make something happen. Van Wert is a feisty team, very well coached, and they have a great point guard in Joey Hurless. It's WBL. Every Friday they're gonna come after you. We weathered the storm and got the win."

The hosts started the game in fine fashion, spurting out to an 8-0 lead on a Mathias free throw, an Allemeier three from the left corner, a Stratton 17-footer from in front, and an Aric Thompson layup via a deflected pass. Allemeier drilled two more treys in the first eight minutes, after which Elida led 19-8. Mathias started off the second quarter with his first two field goals to stretch the lead to 15 at 23-8. Allemeier's fourth trey of the game gave Elida another 15 point lead, 31-16, at the 3:25 mark, but the Cougars then went on a 14-5 run to make it interesting - 36-30 at the half. Holliday started the run with a three-ball from the right corner. Hurless took part in the other 11 points which came, in order, via Logan Ray layup (assist Hurless), Hurless three-point play (layup and one), Wolford layup (assist Hurless), Hurless steal/layup, and Hurless breakaway layup at the buzzer.

It was an unusual first half. Mathias only tried four field goals, hitting two, but assisted on six Elida baskets. Allemeier, averaging six points coming into the game, already had 14. Van Wert's leading scorer, Smith, hadn't scored, but Holliday, averaging 3.9 points, had 13.

Smith got going in the third stanza with eight points, but Mathias had nine, and Elida regained the momentum to take a 53-41 lead after three. The stats verified that this was a dandy WBL battle for a share of the league lead. Elida had the edge in overall field goal shooting - 51 percent (25 of 49) to 49 percent (22 of 45) - and in three-point shooting - 41 percent (9 of 22) to 31 percent (4 of 13). The Cougars, however, were splendid from the line - 92 percent (12 of 13) - compared to the Bulldogs' 75 percent (3 of 4). Elida won the boards 26-23, but Van Wert had fewer turnovers - 11 to 14.

Allemeier led all scorers with 21 points on 8-of-9 field goal shooting, including 5 of 6 from three. Mathias had 18 points, nine assists, three steals, and six rebounds. Stratton led all rebounders with eight. Smith, Hurless, and Holliday had 17. 16, and 15 points for the Cougars. Hurless led Van Wert in rebounds with seven and assists with seven. Wolford had four steals.

Elida coach Denny Thompson wasn't all that surprised by Allemeier's performance. "That's really the kind of things I saw in the preseason - guys like Austin (Allemeier) and Lewis (Gray) and Max (Stambaugh)," said Thompson. "We made shots the whole scrimmage season. I think they're starting to get more comfortable, more relaxed. We're gonna be a tough out if we get point production like that from the guys who aren't being guarded. We'll watch that film - that's the best learning game we've had so far."

For Van Wert, it was a game of spurts, the good ones coming late in the second and fourth quarters. "That's kind of how we are," said Cougar coach Dave Froelich. "We have lulls, and we have good spurts. We could have folded several times. I'm proud of our guys and how they battled, but there's no solace in losing. The flow of that game is kind of how we play, unfortunately. We have to shore up those lapses. We just needed one more bucket to get over the hump. We didn't get it, and they did." The Elida jayvees (8-3) handed Van Wert (9-1) its first loss 51-48. Clark Etzler and Trent Cutlip led the Bulldog scoring with 18 and 15. Drew Myers and Brant Henry had 15 and 10 for Van Wert.

Score by quarters:

Elida 19 17 17 9 - 62 Van Wert 8 22 11 19 - 60

Elida (Total FG, 3-Pt FG, FT, TP) (62)

Allemeier 8-9 5-6 0-0 21, Mathias 7-14 1-4 3-4 18, Stratton 4-9 1-4 0-0 9, Gray 3-7 1-3 0-0 7, Thompson 2-7 1-4 0-0 5, Stambaugh 1-2 0-1 0-0 2, Painter 0-1 0-0 0-0 0, Long 0-0 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 25-49 9-22 3-4 62.

Van Wert (Total FG, 3-Pt FG, FT, TP) (60)

Smith 5-13 1-4 6-6 17, Hurless 6-14 0-2 4-5 16, Holliday 5-8 3-6 2-2 15, Ray 1-1 0-0 0-0 2, Markward 0-0 0-0 0-0 0, Bidlack 1-3 0-0 0-0 2, Keber 0-1 0-1 0-0 0. Wolford 4-5 0-0 0-0 8. Totals 22-45 4-13 12-13 60. Three-point field goals: Elida 9 (Allemeier 5, Mathias, Stratton, Gray, Thompson), Van Wert 4 (Holliday 3, Smith).