EUCLID—Fairport Harding entered Friday’s Division IV sectional final against visiting Independence with a loaded deck.
The Skippers had earned the higher seed in the playoffs and they had a better record, a five-game win streak, one of the most dynamic players in the area, and were playing with the momentum stemming from the best turnaround story of the season.
All Independence coach Kyle Johnson had was an Ace up his sleeve, but it was enough as the Blue Devils pulled off the upset and beat the Skippers, 74-60.
Freshman Ace Buckner made his season and career debut a memorable one as he scored a game-high 24 points to lead the Blue Devils into the district tournament for the second consecutive season.
“We’ve been kind of waiting on him all year,” Johnson said. “When he got hurt early in the season, we saw the talent in the two weeks that he practiced and it hurt to not have him, but everybody else stepped up. To have him back and with barely any practices, coming out and doing that is just remarkable. He’s a gym rat and loves hoops. We were glad he came out and kind of led us tonight.”
Buckner scored just two points in the first quarter and added five in the second as Independence was trailing at halftime, 29-28.
Buckner found his stroke in the third quarter as he drained a 3-pointer and added two jump shots to help Independence rally back from down one to up 15.
Kyle Zygmunt, who also played in his first game after a couple of weeks off with an injury, and Aidan Coljohn also drained 3-pointers during Independence’s 16-point run.
Despite the double-digit lead, the Blue Devils were forced to fight off the Skippers in the fourth quarter.
Sam Honkala hit a pair of 3-pointers and Chris Peoples and Joe Tanker also scored from long-range to pull the Skippers to within 59-54 early in the fourth.
“All year, we’ve talked about getting that lead and how we try to force things and make silly turnovers,” Johnson said. “We still have to get better at that. When we have a lead, we don’t have to force things but that something after 23 games we’re still talking about but the resiliency of this group is great.”
Buckner was at his best in the final four minutes of the game. He finished the fourth quarter with 10 of his game-high 24 to help the Blue Devils pull away from the Skippers down the stretch.
Zygmunt scored 22 and Coljohn also scored in double figures with 11.
Eric Mitrisin added nine points and three other Blue Devils scored.
“Nobody forces anything and I think that’s the best part about this,” Johnson said. “Everybody is selfless and we pass the ball around. Everybody knows, if you have a shot, you take it. Nobody really cares who gets the credit.”
Dom Trusty led the Skippers with 17 points while Tanker, Honkala and Peoples also scored in double figures with 15, 13, and 11, respectively.
Independence improved to 18-4 on the year and will play in a district semifinal on Tuesday at Dalton. The Bulldogs are 18-4.
“Next opponent,” Johnson said. “We’ve just got to take care of ourselves and continue to do the things we do well. We’ll watch some film of the weekend and we’ll be ready.”