By Josh Brown
CASSTOWN — Bethel boys basketball coach Brett Kopp thinks his Bees need a new way of looking at things.
“They’re going to have to understand that they’re the hunted. They’re no longer the hunter,” he said. “And we’ve got to find that mentality.”
Locked in a heated battle against rival Miami East, the defending Cross County Conference champions were able to do just that.
Bethel — already the only team without a loss in CCC play and in control of its own destiny — took the lead for good in the middle of the third quarter and never looked back, with senior point guard Caleb South going a perfect 8 for 8 from the free throw line in the fourth quarter in only his second game back from an injury to help put away a 62-49 victory over the Vikings Friday night on the road, keeping the Bees unbeaten and on top of the league standings.
And even though the Bees improved to 12-2 with the win, 8-0 in the CCC, they shouldn’t have been surprised at how hard they had to work for it or how the Vikings almost took it from them.
“When Bethel and Miami East play, we’re what, eight miles apart?” Kopp said. “This is what a good old-school rivalry was before social media and things like that. And if our kids thought it was going to be a cakewalk, they’re crazy. A team coached by Allen Mack in a rivalry like this? They’d better start bringing it. I told them I wasn’t real pleased with practice this week, and it showed.”
But for Mack and Miami East (7-6, 3-3 CCC), it was like deja vu all over again.
In last season’s matchup, South was also 8 for 8 from the free throw line in the fourth quarter to put away a 52-41 victory en route to the Bees’ first outright CCC title since the 1981-82 season. In that game last season, South was 13 for 14 from the line in the game. Friday night, he was 13 for 17 and scored a game-high 21 points — 16 of them coming in the second half.
“Caleb South,” Mack said when asked what the difference in the fourth quarter was. “It was a repeat of last year. He made 13 free throws and was perfect in the fourth quarter. Coming back from an injury, that’s hard to do. That was the difference in the game. We did a good job of defending him and (Ryan) Rose, but their kids stepped up.
“It was a similar game to last year where it was tight, we took the lead in the third quarter, then we just had trouble scoring in that third and they got that little bit of an edge they needed going into the fourth, a five-point lead. And with a guy that’s going to go 8 for 8 in the fourth, that’s really all you need. Caleb showed his value to their team, what he’s done for four years for them. He’s a great player. Give Bethel credit. They took their game to another level in the fourth when they needed to.”
Early on, though, the Bees looked to have reason to think they could run away with it. Bethel began the game on a 13-3 run, capped off by a 3-pointer by Rose. But Miami East’s Austin Rutledge answered with a long 3 and Brendon Bertsch hit a jumper to cut the deficit to 13-8 after one quarter. The Vikings then connected on five straight 3-point attempts in the second half — one by Justin Brown then two apiece by Rutledge and Will Hudson — and led by as many as three before a late bucket inside by Bethel’s Jacob Evans cut the Vikings’ lead at the half to one at 29-28.
“I lost my mind at halftime,” Kopp said. “We’ve got kids who love these moments. It’s on me that they weren’t prepared in the first half, but I shouldn’t have to yell to get them going. But we got after it a bit.”
Miami East still held a one-point lead midway through the third quarter at 33-32 after a jumper by Brown, but Rose scored on the fast break to give the lead back to the Bees, and they took over from there. South scored inside to make it a three-point game, then he grabbed an offensive rebound and hit a pair of free throws to make it 38-33. Bertsch hit a 3 to keep the Vikings alive, but Evans drove the baseline and cashed in a three point play with 0.3 seconds on the clock to give Bethel a 41-36 lead heading into the fourth.
“We made some mistakes,” Mack said. “We had three or four scramble rebound plays and didn’t come up with any of them. They took one right out of our hands, laid it in and got fouled for an and-one play. Those are the kinds of little things that they can take to another level, and they did.”
The Vikings did get back to within two in the fourth quarter as Rutledge hit a pair of free throws after a technical foul and Hudson hit a jumper on the ensuing possession, a four-point swing that cut the Bees’ lead to 44-42 with roughly six minutes to go. But an offensive rebound by South led to the first two of his eight fourth-quarter free throws, Rose hit a floater in transition after a steal and South hit two more free throws after an offensive rebound to make it 50-42 — and Bethel held on from there.
South added five rebounds to his 21 points, Evans had 14 points, Rose finished with 11 points and seven rebounds, Kendal James had 10 points and six rebounds and Alex Van Haaren had six points, 14 rebounds, seven blocked shots and four assists.
“You’ve got a kid like Alex Van Haaren who, seven games ago, doesn’t try any kind of tip dunk, but now he’s attacking the rim,” Kopp said. “That kid is improving all the time. And Ryan didn’t score as many points as normal, but he defended pretty well in the second half. Kendal James can be an X-factor in every game we play, Jacob Evans had it working offensively and defensively — and it’s nice to have Caleb to hit eight straight free throws to seal it.
“When they want to do it and put everything they’ve got into winning basketball games, it’s going to be hard to beat us. But that’s a challenge to them. They know what practice is going to be like tomorrow — because we’ve got another big league game on Tuesday.”
Rutledge led the Vikings with 17 points and five rebounds, while Bertsch and Hudson both finished with 10 points off the bench. Brown and Dylan Hahn each had five points and Austin Kearns had two points and 10 rebounds.
“Rutledge had his best game of the year for us, did a nice job on the boards and played like the senior leader that I needed him to,” Mack said. “Brendon and Will both came off the bench, did a nice job recognizing that they were giving them a little space and gave us a big lift.
“I was pleased with our kids. It was a big crowd, and they came out and competed really hard and executed the gameplan pretty well on defense. Give Bethel credit. They knew they were in a tight game and got a hard-fought win on the road.”
Miami East is back in action Saturday night, hosting Anna, while Bethel hosts National Trail Tuesday.
Contact Josh Brown at (937) 552-2132, or follow @TroyDailySports on Twitter.