COLUMBUS – Toledo Libbey guard William Buford didn’t quite play up to his new standard as “Mr. Basketball” but he was still the best player on the court by far and got the result he wanted – a victory in the first Division II state semifinal Thursday at Value City Arena.
Behind Buford’s game highs of 21 points and 10 rebounds, Libbey took out previously undefeated St. Paris Graham 51-44 in a dandy of a starter for the 86th annual state tourney, which was staged before a morning crowd of 12,776.
The 6-5 Buford – an Ohio State signee who was playing on his future college floor a day after winning the prestigious award designating him as the state’s top prep player – once again picked his spots of aggression offensively while trying to keep his compatriots in the fray as well.
He scored 14 points in the first half, including a go-ahead dunk late in the second period and a lay-in with a couple ticks left before halftime that provided the Cowboys (24-2) a 22-20 lead at the break. At one point in the third quarter he had 19 of his team’s 27 points.
Still, Buford finished 9 of 24 from the field, 0 of 4 from three-point range and missed 4 of 7 attempts at the free-throw line including two front ends of a one-and-one in the final minutes. Buford did his normal admirable job of directing traffic and trying to run the sets called by coach Leroy Bates, but his three assists were offset by three turnovers.
“My teammates, they were telling me to shoot,” said Buford, who averaged more than 23 points per game as a senior. “They were trying to get me to score. But I distributed the ball so they were able to score, too. I really didn’t feel any pressure.”
Libbey, which has nine seniors on its roster, advanced to Columbus by playing team basketball and Bates saw no merit in asking his star guard to try to carry the load.
“I never really addressed that to him,” Bates said. “Our team, we congratulated him in an individual kind of way and I really didn’t address that with him like, `Since you’re Mr. Basketball you’ve got to come out here and play like Mr. Basketball.’ That’s never been our mentality.
“We always want them to play their best at all times. There may have been a little bit of added pressure from a psychological point of view playing here at Ohio State, but we never put that kind of pressure on him.”
Considering the subpar performance from Buford and the whole team – Libbey shot just 37.3 percent from the floor, 50.0 percent from the line and misfired on all seven attempts from behind the arc – Bates was just glad to be moving on to Saturday’s state championship game vs. either Chillicothe or Poland Seminary (10:45 p.m. Eastern, Sports Time Ohio television, pressboxproductions.net audiocast).
“I was not pleased with our shot selection more than anything,” said the coach. “We were forcing shots, and I didn’t think it was necessary.”
Graham (26-1), which advanced to the state semifinals for the first time in school history after a thrilling overtime victory over Kettering Alter in its regional final, didn’t exactly light up the VCA scoreboard, either. The Falcons hit just 15 of 40 shots (37.5 percent) and committed an uncharacteristic 19 turnovers.
“I didn’t feel like we played our best basketball,” head coach Brook Cupps said, “but Toledo Libbey has a lot to do with that. With their athleticism and their length, they’re a tough team to attack.”
The Cowboys also benefitted from a solid all-around game from forward Lance Jones, who contributed 10 points, five rebounds, three assists, three steals and played shutdown defense on Graham sharpshooter Josh Shuler, who was just 2 of 13 from the field.
“We just made sure Lance played him really, really tough,” Bates said. “And with Lance being 6-5 in length, it would make it tough on anybody.”
Shuler was 1 of 9 from deep but Ethan Ward and Ben Rosenberger each hit 2 of 3 behind the arc.
Libbey appeared to have matters in hand when Jones dunked to put Libbey up 41-31. However, Graham climbed back as Rosenberger, who put in a gutty performance, drew a foul with 3:25 remaining to cut the score to 41-33. Moments later, the 6-2 Shuler tallied one of his two baskets when he rebounded his own miss along the baseline and dropped in a floater with 3:05 to play.
Libbey’s Bradley Burton countered with a driving hoop at the 2:32 mark to up the advantage back to eight at 43-35. Shuler, though, hit a timely three to make it 43-38 and Buford missed the front end of a one-and-one with 1:54 showing on the game clock. On the ensuing possession Shuler found Ward for another triple that trimmed the score down to just a basket, 43-41, and ignited the Graham faithful that were jammed into the east stands.
After a timeout with 1:36 to play, Libbey found an unlikely hero – reserve 5-10 guard Brandon Ham, who calmly sank a baseline jumper with 1:14 to go that moved the lead back to two possessions.
Bates recounted his reaction from the bench to that play.
“Hell, no, no, no … good,” he said, eliciting laughter from the media, “because we were trying to delay it little bit. But he had a wide-open lane on the baseline. Give Brad Sandridge credit. He was telling us, `They’re trying to stop Will. Everybody has got to get involved and get your shot going.’ So it was great recognition on his part and I think that freed up Brandon to actually go to that.
Graham again got the difference back to within two at 45-43 when Travis Crooks gathered in a perfect lob pass from Rosenberger and flipped in a left-handed layup with 44 seconds left, but Libbey held on from there. Sandridge provided the exclamation point – a three-point play off a dish from Buford with 6.7 seconds left.
The Cowboys maintained a small lead throughout the quarter but missed on several opportunities to widen the advantage. Sure enough, Graham drew even eventually as guard Ben Rosenberger, who turned in a gutty performance, nailed a three to knot the score at 26.
The Falcons, who rode hot outside shooting in the early going en route to a 64-50 elimination of Canal Winchester in a regional semifinal last week, were just 2 of 9 from behind the three-point arc in the first half against Libbey and appeared to be due to find their stroke. They did with three timely bombs.
But the Cowboys never stopped testing Graham’s ability to slow down their athleticism.
“I thought Toledo Libbey did a good job of attacking the basket and obviously they hurt us on the boards, which was a concern going into the game,” Cupps said. “They outplayed us. They deserved to win.
“We outrebounded them (36-32) but giving up 19 offensive boards is a major problem. That’s 19 extra possessions that you’re giving a very talented team that is dangerous offensively. Their best offense, I felt like tonight, was throw it up and go get it.”
Cupps whispered some of his replies to questions while a couple players seated next to him had red eyes, which is expected from a team – any team – to arrive to the states with an unblemished record.
“It’s hard,” said Cupps, who admitted struggling to find the words with which to address his team afterward. “We’ve got a great group of kids. They play so well together, they’re so unselfish. We talked about the seniors taking our basketball program and putting it on the map and getting it some recognition. And then we talked about for the underclassmen that we have those guys’ responsibility now to those seniors that are leaving to continue that and meet expectations.”
The Falcons’ lineup is littered with sophomores and juniors, lending hope to their possible return.
For Libbey, this would appear to be an opportunity of a lifetime. The Cowboys have been to only one other state final, way back in 1966. They lost that year to Dayton Chaminade-Julienne.
Not only are the Cowboys tasting a title, they seem to be playing for the pride of the entire Toledo City League. Officials there are contemplating closing some member schools because of declining enrollment. The Libbey fans were sparse in number in the west end of VCA Thursday, but Bates is hoping for a bigger following Saturday.
“With all the talk of cutbacks and stuff, we’re just trying to give them a reason to keep us open,” he said.