BYESVILLE - It was cast as a sectional opener, but would have been better served as a district finale.
Third-seeded Monroe Central and seventh-seeded Martins Ferry needed overtime to eventually settle their Ohio Division III sectional contest at Meadowbrook High School on Friday night. Jeff Sabatino's Purple Riders, who made a magical regional run a season ago, eventually escaped with 61-59 verdict.
The victory was the Riders' 12th in 21 starts and propels them into the sectional finals against Buckeye Trail on Friday, again at the Byesville school. Trail coasted past Newcomerstown in the nightcap.
"I thought both teams played extremely well. I have seen Monroe Central four times this year and I think this is the best they have played," Sabatino said. "But I think we also played really well.
"We had the game won about four times, but to Monroe's credit they kept coming back. They were relentless. I thought Scooter (Tolzda) did a tremendous job with his team. It's another case where it's a shame one team had to lose."
It was a matchup of Ferry's size and Monroe Central's ability to hit the 3-pointer In the end, the size won out, but not before the relentless Seminoles buried nine from beyond the arc.
Senior star Robert Vargo again came up big for the Purple Riders. The 6-foot-6 all-state football player led all scorers with 23 points and grabbed 14 boards.
Vargo's 6-8 frontcourt mate, sophomore Emilio Appolloni, turned in one of his best efforts of the season with 11 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists. Sophomore sharpshooter James Edwards delivered the outside punch with 14 points, including three 3s.
Bryan Duffy led Monroe Central with 21 points, nine coming on 3s. Junior Zach Jorris delivered 16 points, including four 3s.
The loss ended Monroe Central's season with a deceiving 15-8 mark. The Seminoles were 5-0 when they lost standout Curtis Nixon for the season with a knee injury.
"It was a great game. We just came up one bucket short," a dejected Tolzda said. "My kids played hard and gave it all they had. We fought back several times.
"Ferry is tough to defend. Their size presents a lot of problems. They are able to get some easy baskets because of their size, while we have to scrap for every bucket. But Ferry is a quality basketball team."
Martins Ferry owned the opening quarter, racing to a 17-10 advantage at the break with all five starters scoring, led by Edwards' eight. Duffy countered with four for Monroe.
The tide turned the Seminoles' way in the second quarter. Duffy delivered eight points and Seth Alleman netted six as Tolzda's troops doubled up the Purple 18-9 in the frame, yielding a 28-26 Monroe halftime advantage.
Vargo exploded for a big third quarter, netting 11 points, enabling the Riders to regain the upperhand at 46-43 entering the action-filled fourth period.