WESTLAKE — Hearts were left in western Cuyahoga County on Wednesday night.
They belonged to Buckeye boys basketball players, as the most successful season in school history ended with an action-packed yet heartbreaking 74-72 loss to Vermilion in the Westlake Division II District semifinals.
The fifth-seeded Sailors (18-7), who received a virtuoso performance from All-Ohio small forward Cameron Kuhn (36 points), will face No. 2 Holy Name or fourth-seeded Clearview for a district title Saturday night.
“I feel so bad for my seniors,” Bucks coach Matt Saunders said while fighting through emotions. “It was hard to even talk to them in the (locker room), honestly, knowing how much work they put in and what a great season they had.
“I just hope to God they don’t ever look back at this as a negative. It’s rough, but they accomplished a ton individually and as a team.”
Top-seeded Buckeye (21-4) saw senior stars Garrett Beck and Jeff Miller miss potential go-ahead 3-pointers in the final 6.8 seconds after Kuhn drilled a stunningly wide-open 3-pointer to give the Sailors the lead.
The only way the game could have been better was if Beck or Miller had made one of those attempts. The lead changed hands an amazing 25 times in the second half on a night in which the teams combined to shoot .574 from the floor, .529 on 3-pointers and .778 from the line.
Beck had the game of his life with 27 points, eight rebounds, four assists and three steals. Miller (12 points, 6 rebounds, 4 blocks), Chris Vogt (14 points) and John Tighe (13 points, 9 in fourth quarter) also hit double-figures, while point guard Cory Inman had four points and a game-high six assists in 31 minutes.
Buckeye’s biggest issue was stopping Kuhn, who made 13-of-17 shots from every angle. The Bucks also committed 14 first-half turnovers against physical man press that trapped at unpredictable times and allowed 6-3 point guard Kyle Nader (17 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists) to score 13 points in the second half.
“We had runs and opportunities to close (the game) out,” Saunders said. “We just had too many mistakes in too many big situations.”
Vermilion had a golden chance to seal the game when Beck was called for a charge with the Sailors holding a 71-70 lead at the 1:19 mark. The Sailors attempted to run some clock, but Tighe poked the ball from behind Nader and into the arms of Beck, who fed a streaking Tighe for a layup and possible and-one.
Tighe missed the free throw, but gave Buckeye a 72-71 lead with 47.5 seconds left to set up the game-winning score.
On the next possession, Vermilion missed a tough baseline runner, but the Sailors’ Seth Conrad won a battle on the block to get the rebound, dribbled to the corner and found a wide-open Kuhn for a hair-raising 3-pointer with approximately 30 seconds to go.
“The ball pops out to their best player at the end of the game,” Saunders said. “A kid like that hits the shot. He hurt us all night. Obviously, you’ve got to tip your hat to that shot.”
Buckeye called timeout with 20.3 seconds remaining and wanted to run a pick-and-roll, but the play broke down behind the 3-point line. A double-teamed Inman found Beck, who dribbled to the 3-point arc and saw his go-ahead attempt miss a tad right and out of bounds with 6.8 ticks on the clock.
Inman alertly fouled Nader before the ball could be inbounded and Nader missed the front end of a one-and-one, giving way for Beck to cross half court and call timeout with 3.2 seconds left.
Knowing the Sailors would focus on Beck while also guarding the rim, Saunders called a play for the 6-foot-3 Miller. Beck flashed to the corner to draw the defense, allowing Miller to curl around a Vogt screen at the top of the 3-point arc.
Miller’s shot looked true, but went off back iron and time expired as the ball hit the ground.
“(Miller’s attempt) was much more well-covered than mine was,” Beck said. “We want to get the ball in our two best players’ hands in those situations, and neither of us made the shot, obviously. There’s not much else to say.”
Kuhn scored 20 of Vermilion’s 29 first-half points to keep the Sailors within one at halftime. The Buckeye lead could have been significantly higher if not for 14 turnovers that came on nervous, off-target passes or when a Vermilion player swiped a Bucks counterpart clean in the open court.
Beck was the sole reason Buckeye was in the game. The 6-2 senior made six of his final seven shots in the first half, including many quick-triggered layups and floaters at full speed.
Beck never slowed down, either. Despite being scoreless over the final six-plus minutes of the game, he had two key assists in the final three.
“I didn’t want to lose this game,” Beck said. “Our first half, we had so many turnovers. We shouldn’t have done that.
“They’re a one-man team and we’re not. I had to force some things and make baskets to keep my team in the game.”
Buckeye missed its chance to take control early in the fourth quarter, when Beck completed a three-point play and Inman found Tighe in transition to make it 59-53 with 5:58 left.
The night-long theme then reared its ugly head — the Bucks couldn’t string together stops — as Vermilion went on an 8-2 run in less than a minute to tie the game at 61.
Kuhn later put Vermilion ahead 69-66 with free throws before Miller scored inside and Tighe took a steal to the house to give Buckeye a 70-69 lead. Vermilion countered with Nader finding power forward Forrest Boyd (12 points) with 1:50 left.
That gave way for the thrilling — or, depending on who is asked, heartbreaking — conclusion.
“Obviously, the last loss of the year, last game I’m ever going to be a basketball player, it stings,” Beck said. “I’m not going to forget this feeling.
“We’re proud of this team. We’re the best team in school history. We got the mark on the record and we tied the farthest we’ve ever gotten in the tournament. Right now, it doesn’t mean anything. It’s a failure right now.”
Beck passed Hank Frambach (1,025, 1954-58) for second place on the school’s career scoring list with the three-point play early in the fourth quarter. Beck finished with 1,027 points in 70 games.
l Buckeye is just the 14th team in Medina County history to reach 21 wins. The last squad before the Bucks was Wadsworth in 1995.
Contact Albert Grindle at (330) 721-4043 or firstname.lastname@example.org.