By Tom Nader
Publisher and Editor
Through the first three quarters of Friday’s game between Southeast and Rootstown, there were 13 lead changes.
A back-and-forth game with neither team backing down from adversity.
The fourth quarter had zero lead changes.
Southeast led 44-43 entering the fourth quarter and never relinquished the lead. In fact, it didn’t take long for the Pirates to push the game out of reach, using an 11-0 run to start the stanza to take a 55-43 lead on their way to a 61-48 Portage Trail Conference victory over the visiting Rovers on Friday in Palmyra.
The burst of fourth-quarter energy came after it appeared it would be the Rovers taking the momentum into the final eight minutes.
Trailing 44-39, Rootstown’s Cameron Mahone buried a 3-pointer as time expired in the third quarter to make it 44-42.
Southeast head coach Matt Dillon was given a technical, arguing whether or not he thought the shot was released before the buzzer and Mahone hit one of his two free throws to a suddenly energized Rovers team.
But it was Southeast that had all of the fourth-quarter enthusiasm.
The Pirates pressured a passive Rovers players on the perimeter and created turnover after turnover that resulted in transition offense. It opened with a 3-pointer from Zach Keto, which was followed by a reverse layup on the baseline by Garrett Sprutte to make it 49-43 in favor of the Pirates with 6:20.
Case Myers, Austin Mejia and Sprutte all banked in additional lay-ins and the Pirates were off and running.
“We honestly have been really impressed with what Rootstown has been doing, and I thought they played well again tonight,” Dillon said. “This game turned out just like we thought that it would, and we knew we were going to have to play hard for 32 minutes. We had that offensive spurt in the fourth quarter and without it, tonight’s game could have gone either way.”
Sprutte finished the game with 28 points (9-of-23 shooting), along with eight rebounds, and it was his 21-point production in the second half that sparked the Pirates.
In the third quarter, isolation sets continued to give Rootstown’s defense problems, with Sprutte either scoring or creating mismatches that allowed others to find opportunities. In the fourth quarter, Sprutte got out on the break and finished in transition.
“When you have a player like Garrett, you are hoping to have him score in crunch time, and he did that a lot for us tonight,” Dillon said.
The defensive pressure along the perimeter for Southeast was provided by Myers, Zach Keto, Cohen Richardson and Austin Mejia. While all four provided just enough offense to complement Sprutte along the way, with Mejia scoring a season-high 10 points, including a pair of 3-pointers.
“I thought Zach, Case and Austin all played very well tonight, and I think it was Austin’s best game of the season,” Dillon said. “We moved Case around a lot tonight, because Rootstown had a couple players we wanted to be very conscious of, and I think his activity early made them tentative to throw some passes later that helped disrupt their rhythm.”
Rootstown turned the ball over 18 times in the game, with 13 of those coming in the first and fourth quarters. The two most problematic parts of the game for the Rovers, who trailed 7-0 to start the game, then gave up the 11-0 run to start the fourth quarter. In the opening and closing quarters, Rootstown shot a combined 5-of-13 (3-of-6 in the first quarter and 2-of-7 in the fourth quarter), but not being able to handle the ball kept the Rovers from keeping up with the same amount of shot attempts the Pirates got in the same two quarters (30 for the Pirates, with 16 in the first and 14 in the fourth).
“I think we definitely were a little fatigued, and I think we need our guys to get mentally tougher to play through that fatigue,” Rootstown coach Bobby Staudt said. “Southeast is well coached and defends well. We knew we were going to need to take care of the ball and in the fourth quarter, we definitely did not do that, and we did not execute well, and things started to slip away.
“I am getting tired of moral victories, but I do truly like where we are headed as a team,” Staudt added.
In the second and third quarters, Rootstown, which led 27-25 at halftime, made 11-of-26 shots and turned the ball over only five times.
The Rovers were led offensively by Cameron Mahone, who pumped in 25 points on 9-of-16 shooting. He also hit 4-of-7 free throws and was 3-for-8 from 3-point range. Aiden Rodstrom joined him in double figures with 14 points, while also pulling down a team-high seven rebounds.