FORTVILLE — The rivalry between the Mt. Vernon Marauders and the Connersville Spartans boys basketball teams can be defined in numbers —a whopping 124 minutes or 7,440 seconds to be exact.
With seven overtimes needed to determine a winner in the teams’ past three matchups, dating back to a quadruple bonus-period thriller Jan. 27, 2017, which the Marauders lost 88-85, regulation has never proven to be enough.
Familiarity is a given, and it will come into play at 6 p.m. Friday night as the Marauders look to end their three-game skid against the Spartans when they clash during the Class 4A Richmond Sectional semifinal at the Tiernan Center.
“Overtime really has meant one thing for us the past couple of years. I think it’s become synonymous with this game,” Mt. Vernon head coach Travis Daugherty said. “I don’t know if we’re destined for overtime tomorrow, but it’s destined to be a close, competitive and high-level game between two quality teams that really want to win.”
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The Spartans (21-4) enter as the defending sectional champions, surviving the opening round Tuesday with a 50-41 victory against Greenfield-Central despite a heroic fourth-quarter effort by Cougars’ senior Will O’Connor, who unloaded with six 3-pointers in the final eight minutes.
However, as been their forte, the Spartans held fended off the Cougars and clung to their once 18-point lead from 15 feet out, converting 14 of 17 free throws in the clutch.
“They’ve had 47 charges this whole season and we’ve had like four or five,” Mt. Vernon guard Damari Gatewood remarked on the Spartans’ free-throw prowess. “They like to shoot their free throws and get fouls up. They’re very smart.”
And they’re efficient.
As a team, the Spartans are shooting 72 percent from the foul line, burying 324 of 453 attempts overall, while shooting no fewer than eight in a single game and reaching a season-high 39 on Dec. 16 against Richmond.
Twice this year, Connersville has surpassed 30 free-throw attempts in a game and have been issued 19 or more 12 times.
“They are a team that has never beaten themselves. They demand, if you’re going to win, that you make the plays to win. They don’t make mistakes,” Daugherty said. “In the games we’ve played recently, the margin for error has been so small on either side.”
After a first-round bye, the Marauders have focused on the controllable this week in preparation. Their primary goals are winning 50-50 balls, high-percentage execution, patient and opportunistic defense and cohesiveness.
The pressure, the Marauders believe, sits squarely on Connersville, which has won the past three meetings, including last year’s sectional meeting Feb. 28, 2017, by an average of four points.
“We’ve had three shots in the air the past two years, that if they go in, we win. And we haven’t made any of them. It’s easy to focus on those last-second shots that either do or don’t go in, but there are so many small plays throughout our games against them that have helped determine the outcome,” Daugherty said. “That’s really our focus, the plays we have to make to be in position to win late.”
The key will be their unselfishness, Gatewood emphasized. At 13-9 on the season, the program’s fourth straight winning record in Daugherty’s five-year tenure, the Marauders have endured a roller-coaster campaign.
Mt. Vernon opened the year 4-0 before dropping three of their next four. They labored through a three-game losing streak in mid-January, but the Marauders turned the corner the past five weeks.
Since their 42-37 overtime loss at Connersville on Jan. 26, the Marauders have won six of their last eight games, including two straight to end the regular season.
Gatewood, a senior, leads the team with 12.5 points and 2.0 assists per game. Peyton Meadors is second on the team with 8.3 points per game, while Cade Gentry is providing 8.2.
In their regular-season finale against Yorktown, the Marauders “spread the wealth” approach lead to three players reaching double-figures. Four players surpassed 10 points in their 65-59 win against Westfield on Feb. 20.
“We’ve become a hard team to guard because I don’t think anyone has become too worried about who gets the numbers on a particular night. We just play the right way and trust each other and let the chips fall where they may,” Daugherty said. “We knew coming into the year that was the formula for us to be our best.”
Tomorrow, the Marauders plan to use the past as motivation to overcome head coach Kerry Brown’s fundamentally sound Spartans and Connersville’s clamorous faithful, who travel in droves to support the team.
“I’m expecting most of the people cheering against us because Connersville’s people always come to everything. It’s going to be really loud and a lot of energy,” Gatewood said. “We were excited when we knew we were going to play Connersville, but we can’t give them chances. We just have to jump on them and keep going.
“We can’t keep going into overtimes because that will just keep giving them more opportunities.”