NEW CASTLE — For the second time this year, regulation wasn’t enough to settle a winner between Mt. Vernon and No. 13 Connersville. Once again, the Spartans found a way to squeak by.
Up by 12 points on Tuesday night, the Class 4A Mt. Vernon Marauders (14-9) could do little wrong in the first half of their Sectional 9 opener at New Castle Fieldhouse.
In the second half, however, they just couldn’t find enough.
Connersville (24-1) charged back in the final 16 minutes of regulation and survived a pair of back-and-forth bonus periods from 15-feet out to advance and win 59-55 in double overtime.
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“We prepared hard for this game, ready to win,” Mt. Vernon senior Erick Shepherd remarked. “We knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but we just couldn’t execute down the stretch. It’s really hard for our team right now.”
With frustration and exhaustion on their faces after the game, the Marauders logged 88 total minutes this season against the Spartans. In the first meeting during the regular season on Jan. 27, they lost 88-85 in four overtimes.
This time around, they put themselves in position to avenge the past before it slipped away.
Mt. Vernon jumped out to a quick 6-0 lead and built a nine-point advantage in the second quarter. The Marauders shot 50 percent from the field through the first eight minutes and followed it up with 54 percent in the second quarter.
“We felt we could pull it out the whole game. We were up, but we felt we had to stay on top of them,” said Shepherd, who finished with 13 points and 10 rebounds. “We just kept telling ourselves, we have to take the win. They aren’t going to give it to us.”
The Spartans took the lead and the momentum back in the second half after struggling from the field in the first half at 38 percent.
While still just shooting 3 of 18 from 3-point range all night — their go-to depth — 6-foot-6 senior Grant Smith went to work in the second half as the Spartans turned a 35-23 deficit into a 10-run.
“We did it so well in the first half, especially offensively, we really moved the ball into some advantages,” Mt. Vernon head coach Travis Daugherty said. “We had a stretch there in the third where the ball got a little bit stagnant and it just got tougher.”
Smith had a game-high 31 points with 12 dropping through in the second half. Connersville cut Mt. Vernon’s lead 35-33 entering the fourth quarter as the Marauders went scoreless for nearly 10 minutes.
“They’re really good offensively and Smith was relentless. If you support too much some of those other guys are going to hurt you. We tried to make him shoot tough ones, and he made a lot of them,” Daugherty said.
A 3-pointer from Hunter Sullenbarger gave Connersville its first lead of the game with 3:28 left in regulation. But Mt. Vernon senior Michael Ertel hit two key 3-pointers to put the Marauders up again by two and three points.
Ertel had 14 points and senior James McCloud had 12, but the latter fouled out with 3:08 in the fourth quarter as the calls repeated went against the Marauders in the second half.
Damari Gatewood hit a 3-pointer with 2:51 left in the fourth to put Mt. Vernon up 46-43. Yet, the Spartans clawed back and tied the game on a post shot from Noah Belt with 1:18 remaining.
“We just didn’t quite close it, and against a team like that, they’re never going to quit,” Daugherty said.
Mt. Vernon led 50-46 in the first overtime, but Connersville, which shot 26 free throws compared to the Marauders 11, converted 4 of 6 to tie it up again and force another four extra minutes. Connersville went 16 of 26 from the foul line.
The Marauders led 55-52 with 1:16 left in the second overtime behind a pair of Shepherd foul shots — where he went 7 of 10 — but Mt. Vernon couldn’t find anymore buckets the rest of the way.
“Their defense picked up,” Daugherty said. “But it was likely to be a close game in the fourth quarter, and we still had opportunities to make plays late. In a game like that, it’s a possession by possession game, and every time we scored they answered.”
Logan Smith had 11 points for the Marauders and Garrett Silcott was the only other double-digit scorer for the Connersville with 15.
“It’s hard when you have guys really trying to do it the right way. You feel like those guys deserve success,” Daugherty remarked while wiping tears from his eyes. “It hasn’t been the easiest or the prettiest of years, but I’m really proud of them. It makes it hard when you lose a game like that, when you know these guys deserve more.”