By Gary R. Rasberry
TOLEDO -- St. Marys needed a game much like the one it had against Van Wert on Saturday to come away with a win over unbeaten and state number-one Upper Sandusky, a team that averaged 87 points per game and forced nearly 30 turnovers.
The game just about matched the level of the district final game.
One late surge by the Rams was the difference in a 83-74 win at the Division II regional semifinal at John F. Savage Hall on the campus of the University of Toledo.
The win puts the Rams (24-0) in the regional final on Saturday at 3 p.m. at Toledo against Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary. The Irish defeated Parma Padua, 70-44, at the Canton Fieldhouse in the other semifinal. St. Marys, playing in its first regional semifinal since the 1992-93 season, ends the season at 21-4, tying the school record for most wins in a season with the 1955-56 and 1992-93 teams.
The plan for St. Marys was simple: Don't let the Upper Sandusky press take over the game. From the start of the game, the Roughriders found ways to get the ball down the court against the tenacious Rams press more often than not.
Roughrider coach Josh Leslie's plan was to let Corey Vossler or Todd Graves bring the ball up the point, with center Adam Johns in the middle. When the Upper press closed in, the ball would go down to one of the wings, Tom Burke or Wes Clark.
"Anybody that tries to press us, we have multiple ballhandlers," said Leslie. "(If) they're going to press us, we're going to attack them and make layups. The worse thing we could have done was break the first line of the press, get it past halfcourt and let them trap you 2-3 more times.
"We knew the game was going to be in the 70s. We thought if we kept the game in the 70s, we'd win. They got over 80, barely, and they won," added Leslie.
For Clark, especially, the play worked to perfection. The senior Western Buckeye League co-player of the year hit his first five shots of the night as the Roughriders overcame a quick 5-0 deficit thanks to turnovers and got out to as much as an 20-12 lead late in the opening quarter.
Upper Sandusky made runs to get back into the game in the second quarter, but St. Marys answered every shot with a shot of its own. Towards the end of the quarter, the brother combination of Jon Diebler and Jake Diebler hit some big shots to force a 37-all tie at the half. St. Marys shot 61 percent (14-of-23) in the quarter from the field with Clark leading the way with 22 points.
"This ballclub (Upper Sandusky) wasn't looking ahead," said Rams coach Keith Diebler, father to Jon and Jake. "We had the greatest respect in the world for (St. Marys). I thought they were well-coached, fundementally sound and could do some things to hurt us. I thought they would go with us. I told them that (St. Marys) was more disciplined at the half."
The game remained a back-and-forth style with both teams taking short leads up until the 3:10 mark when the Rams took a 48-46 lead on a Jon Diebler three-pointer. The Rams went on a 16-9 run to end the quarter, with the last points coming when Greg Micheli, who had been out for a stretch in the game when he suffered hip pain, hit a lean-in three-pointer at the buzzer to put the Rams up 64-55 going into the final quarter.
"They had some guys make some big shots," said Leslie of Upper. "The biggest was the one at the end of third quarter. I don't what you would call that (shot): A runner? Something out of 'Hoosiers?' That was an old-school move there."
It appeared that Upper Sandusky was in the midst of a run that most times during the season would turn into leads of 20 or more. St. Marys, however, never trailed by more than 12 points in the fourth quarter, and despite turning the ball over 19 times in the game, continued to break the Rams' pressure with some success with Burke and Clark getting clean looks at the basket or Johns and Vossler going inside for points.
With 1:45 left and Upper Sandusky leading 77-66, St. Marys made one last push, Clark drove in for two with 1:36 left to cut the deficit to nine. Upper proceeded to turn the ball over and Clark responded with a three-pointer to get it to 77-70. Jon Diebler hit a runner to get his team back up nine, but Adam Johns got a pass underneath the basket to again make it a seven-point game.
With the clock under 30 seconds, Vossler drove in with a bucket of his own and was fouled to make the game 79-74. after the miss, though, Jon Diebler hit a free throw. On the inbounds, Brock England got the turnover and scored on a bunny to make it 82-74.
After another St. Marys turnover, Jake Diebler was fouled intentionally and made one of two free throws to round out the scoring with 2.2 seconds left.
"Even with two minutes left, I thought we still had chances," said Leslie. "We couldn't get that series of stops and quick scores at the other end."
The nine-point margin of victory is the lowest on the season for Upper Sandusky, with the previous mark being 11 against Tiffin Columbian. The 19 turnovers was also well under the 30 that the Rams force their opponents into during the year.
"Pretty good game, huh?" said Leslie. "That's about as good a game as we had the other night (the Van Wert game, which St. Marys won 60-57 in double overtime). I thought we gave a great effort against them. They had the longest run at the end. They made multiple shots in row to put it far enough out of reach where we couldn't cut it.
"But, I tell you, these guys don't quit. They kept coming after them and after them. We said going in that we would have to attack them and hit our spots. I thought the game plan was pretty good and these guys executed perfectly."
"We've done a good job of closing out games all season," said Micheli about the close game. "Tonight we didn't do a good job of managing the clock and had a couple turnovers. St. Marys is obviously a good team. They made a run and they weren't going to quit. In closer games down the road, that's going to hurt us."
Clark completed his career with a career-high 40 points on 15-of-25 shooting from the field and 5-of-12 from the three-point line. The 40 points ranks second on the St. Marys all-time list, three short of Dave Williams' 43 points scored against Van Wert during the 1964-65 season.
"Unbelievable," said Leslie's remark about Clark's night. "Sixteen points in the first quarter. He has that ability."
"After my first couple of shots, I knew I was feeling it tonight," said Clark.
Burke was the only other Roughrider in double figures, scoring 11. Vossler added eight points and seven assists. Johns finished with seven points and a game-high 11 rebounds. Graves did not score, but pulled down nine rebounds and dished out a game-high nine assists.
Jon Diebler, the district's top player in Division II, finished with 37 points on 15-of-29 shooting while brother Jake Diebler added 19 points. Aaron Wetherell came off the bench to score 11 while Micheli recovered from tweaking his hip to score 10.
"They had some great players, you have to give them credit," said Leslie. "You should give us credit too, because we played a heckuva game."