Prep boys basketball: French rallies Warren past Athens in overtime, 74-69

ATHENS – Evan French exploded for 27 points in the final quarter and overtime to lead the Warren Warriors to a thrilling 74-69, come-from-behind victory over the Athens Bulldogs Thursday night at the Convocation Center in Athens to advance to the Division II regional final.

Athens limited French, the Division II District Player of the Year, to just a lone field goal thru the first three quarters of action before the junior erupted to rally the big blue back from a 13- point fourth quarter deficit.

“I told French in the fourth quarter, I’ve got to have you man,” said a jubilant Warren head coach Blane Maddox, whose Warriors have now won 20 straight games. “Boy did he come thru in a big way.”

Despite the slow start for French, the Warriors jumped out to the early lead, paced by senior big man Dylan Leffingwell to take an 18-11 lead after the first quarter of play.

Leffingwell scored five points and pulled down five rebounds in the opening quarter as the Warriors scored the final nine points of the first eight minutes of play.

Leffingwell got the second quarter started for Warren with a pair of driving buckets as the Warriors increased the lead to 11 at 22-11 and appeared poised to blow things wide open.

With their backs planted firmly against the wall, Athens came charging right back and finished the first half on a 10-2 run to trim the Warrior lead to 24-21.

Sophomore standout Joe Burrow led the way for the Bulldogs in the first half with 10 points, including a pair from behind the arc.

French, who spent a good deal of the second quarter on the bench with a pair of fouls, was whistled for an offensive foul on the opening play of the second half.

“The only time Evan (French) seems to get in foul trouble is in tournament time,” said Maddox. “He reached a couple of times and got the charge but he’s an intelligent player and he played smart with three fouls.”

The Bulldogs seemed to carry over the momentum that they gained at the end of the first half into the third quarter as a 6-0 run gave them a 27-24 lead with six minutes to play in the third.

The Warriors went almost six minutes from late in the second quarter to well into the third without scoring before Reece Patton’s field goal closed the Athens lead to 27-26.

After Burrow and Warrior sophomore Michael Hall exchanged baskets, Athens began to pull away as Burrow and Zaccizh Saltzman connected on back-to-back triples to increase the Athens lead to 35-30.

Hall’s second field goal of the quarter trimmed the lead to three, but seven points in the final two minutes of play by freshman Ibi Watson sparked an 11-3 quarter ending run and sent the ‘Dogs to the final period with a 46-35 lead.

Burrow kicked off the final period with a quick bucket and the lead jumped to a game- high 13 points with seven minutes to play.

Reece Patton knocked down a huge three a minute later to get the lead back to nine and Burrow answered right back with a long triple of his own to push the lead to 52-40 with under six minutes to go.

Adam Lang’s inside score closed the lead to ten and set the stage for French to completely take over arguably the most important game in Warrior basketball history.

In a matter of three minutes French exploded for 17 points, including three from behind the arc.

“I was feeling hot and my teammates knew that and were doing everything they could to help me out,” said French of his huge fourth quarter. “I may have been hitting the shots, but my teammates were setting the screens and grabbing the rebounds and getting the assists.”

The last of the three French bombs gave the Warriors a 59-58 lead with just 2:30 to play.

Athens struggled to break the tenacious Warrior fourth quarter press as they turned the ball over seven times in the final period.

A left handed basket by Saltzman tied the game at 60-60 and a pair of free throws by Watson gave Athens the lead with under a minute to go. French scored points number 22 and 23 of the fourth quarter on a short jumper to tie things at 62-62 and Watson’s last second attempt at a buzzer-beater was no good forcing an additional four minutes of play. Watson and French traded scores to open the overtime period and after a pair of missed free throws by Athens, the Warriors came up with six points in just 30 seconds to ultimately decide the outcome of the game.

Patton’s lay-up on a nice pass from Michael Hall gave Warren the lead and Hall promptly stole the in bound pass and hit a wide open French to increase the lead to 68-64.

The Warriors once again forced a Bulldog turnover on the inbounds pass and Patton drew a foul to send the senior to the charity stripe.

Patton drained both freebies to increase the lead to 70-64 with 1:02 to go.

Burrow connected on 6-of-11 from three-point range in the game, the last of which closing the lead back to three, but the Warriors converted their last six free throws to clinch the first elite eight appearance in school history.

“We’ve waited a long time to get to play in a place like this,” said Maddox, noting the huge attendance of the Warrior faithful in the crowd. “We did what we had to do and wow what a win.”

French led all scores with a game-high 29 points, while Leffingwell and Patton added 14 and 13 respectively for the Warriors.

Burrow led Athens with 28 points while Watson added 20 and Saltzman chipped in with 14.

Next up for the royal blue and white is the regional 3 p.m. final Saturday afternoon against New Philadelphia, who defeated St. Clairsville 65-50 earlier Thursday, with a trip to Columbus on the line.

“They are big, they are well coached, they are patient and they like to spread the floor and get the ball to their big guys,” said Maddox of New Philly.