CASSTOWN — With its quick start, Miami East High School’s boys basketball team is breaking away from the pack. The Vikings, though, are being careful not to get too far ahead of themselves.
In just seven games this season East has already matched its win total from last season. Optimism is again high among Vikings’ supporters. But they also know the season is long, especially just two seasons removed from a 1-20 record.
“I thought we could have been at this point last year, but it just didn’t happen,” said Miami East junior guard Dan Hickman of the fast start. “I think we have all the pieces for a winning team.”
The Vikings took another step toward that goal with a 57-51 double-overtime win over Milton-Union on Friday, rekindling some classic battles between the Miami County rivals. Miami East — a team that won an uncharacteristic nine games the past three seasons combined — already has five this season (5-2). The victory was career win No. 224 for Allen Mack, who returned to the bench following a five-year layoff to pursue career opportunities.
“Give them as much credit as you can. I’m so impressed,” Milton-Union coach Brett Barnes said of the Vikings. “I knew when coach (Mack) came back they’d be good. They’re on their way to being real good.”
Milton isn’t far behind. The Bulldogs (3-3), who returned just two players with varsity minutes, have strong guard play from Curt Thompson and Cody Jones and an improving post presence with 6-foot-5 center Jon Mason and 6-4 forward Nikko Johnson. That was almost enough Friday. Milton’s highest lead reached 10 points in the second quarter (23-13). They held on through the third and looked to be in control with 3:23 left in the fourth. After Mason snuffed out a pair of East fastbreaks with consecutive blocked shots, Johnson hit a three-pointer for the 45-43 lead.
But East’s Ricky Vega tied it with 2:49 to play and Hickman — who scored a career-high 29 points — gave East the lead off a steal near midcourt. Milton forced the first overtime on Johnson’s back-door basket with 16 seconds left.
“We just had to put everything behind us and go play hard for four minutes (in overtime),” said Hickman, whose outside jumper missed with two seconds left in regulation.
The Vikings also had to shake off some misses from the free-throw line. East made just 10-of-23 attempts in regulation. The first OT didn’t go much better with an 0-for-4 effort.
Vega’s basket with 3:02 left in OT put East up 49-47. Getting the ball back with just over two minutes left, the Vikings ran the clock down to 43 seconds. Hickman missed a bonus free throw. Teammate Tyler Dunivan grabbed the rebound, but Hickman again missed a bonus toss four seconds later. Milton’s Thompson scored down the lane to tie with 23 seconds left for two of his team-high 25 points. The Bulldogs survived when East’s Richie Miller misfired on two more free throws with 4.4 seconds left.
In the second OT, East finally found its touch. The Vikings hit four straight free throws and 8-of-10 in the extra period to hold on. They were 18-of-37 overall. Milton, meanwhile, shot just two free throws in the game.
“It’s another step in the learning process for the guys,” Mack said. “We really valued each possession in the overtimes. Even thought it took two to finally win it, I thought the guys were pretty selective on offense.”
While East was selective, Milton was limited. The Bulldogs were held to just one field in each overtime.
“For the most part they were more physical than we were,” said Barnes, who early the second overtime had all five of his starters saddled with four fouls each. “They outplayed us. You can tell that by the free-throw line. We just weren’t physical enough to get it done. That’s disappointing.”
The Bulldogs plan to fix that before getting back into their Southwestern Buckeye League schedule, and then the postseason.
“I think we’ll be fine,” Barnes said. “You come on the road here, it’s a tough place to play. There’s a lot of history here. We have to be more phyiscal. When you run into our league, they’ll kill you on the glass. I think we have the potential to be really good by the end of February.”
East hopes it’s already there. A smaller Vikings team outrebounded the Bulldogs 44-37 and a fastbreak offense has scoring potential.
“I think coach just lets us play our game,” Hickman said. “He gives us freedom to do what our abilities let us. He wants us to push the ball up the floor. It’s a great way to get points on the board. And the 1-2-2 defense helps us, too. Never forget the 1-2-2.”
Milton certainly won’t. After allowing 41 points through the first 24 minutes, the Vikings allowed just 10 over the final 16.
“It was a thriller. Certainly we could have executed better at times, could made more free throws,” Mack said. “But the kids showed a lot of heart and great intensity on defense. They’re an explosive team to guard.”