It was the "game of the night" in the NBC on Tuesday evening (Feb. 5) when the Salem Quakers entered Red Ash Gymnasium looking to enter into a tie for first place with the Wildcats.
But one thing was clear on Tuesday night: It was going to take a monumental effort from any team to beat the Canton South Wildcats, who were rated seventh in the state in the latest OHSAA AP poll.
The first-place Wildcats grabbed a double-digit lead in the second quarter and trounced Salem by the final score of 68-44 to maintain control of their own destiny in the NBC race. With the win, South has now won six in a row and now holds a substantial lead (1.5 games) over Marlington in the NBC.
"We played four solid quarters of defense on a very good basketball team," said South head coach Frank Spotleson. "We learned some big things about ourselves as far as sticking to a plan and battling for the entire ball game. I couldn't be happier with how we were able to finish at the basket time and time again and still find time to get that three pointer that was a little bit of a nail every once in a while."
The Wildcat lead got up to 19 points in the second quarter but the Quakers cut the deficit to 32-18 at halftime, but Salem could never fully recover as South's defense was to tenacious. South held Salem star Ryan Bush to 4-of-14 shooting for just 14 points.
The Wildcats outscored Salem (13-5, 8-4) in the second half 36-26 to continue to pour it on and put the game away in the fourth quarter and send the home crowd home happy with the 68-44 win and cleared hurdle one of three for the undisputed NBC crown.
Armand Fontes scored a game-high 18 points for Canton South as Kyle Deckard and Trey Taylor each finished with 16 points as Austin Joliff carded 10 points in the win. Deckard also grabbed six rebounds and nailed four treys.
Also scoring for South was Josh Lyon with four and Dejon Newell with three.
"It was probably our best performance to date," said Spotleson of his team's effort. "
As a team, the Wildcats shot 28-of-59 from the field for a blistering 52 percent while South's defense contained the Quakers. Both teams collected 37 rebounds in the contest.
South looked to make it seven in a row on Friday night when they traveled to Carrollton High School to face the always tough Carrollton Warriors in another huge NBC contest. Carrollton was coming off a 56-42 defeat at the hand of Alliance.
The fate of the Wildcats was simple. Win and gain a share of the NBC crown. Lose and face an all or nothing game against Alliance on Friday night.
Canton South's formula was to never lose composure, battle from behind and never flinch when its piece of the title was slipping away.
The Wildcats held on to defeat the Warriors 69-66 and captured at least a share of their first Northeastern Buckeye Conference title since 2003 when they went to the Division II state tournament.
"We have continued our consistent performances from the past two games," said Spotleson on the teams's effort. "We have kept our intensity on offense and defense at a very high level."
Canton South fell behind by as much as seven in the third quarter and was forced hold on in the final minute of play when the Warriors cut the Wildcat eight-point lead to one.
Lyon forced a missed three-pointer at the buzzer and everyone in Canton South took a quick sigh of relief, then celebrated.
Both teams entered the halftime locker room with 34 points and the back and forth game began in the final 16 minutes of play.
The difference in the game was the play of sixth man Jason Merriweather. Merriweather poured in seven of his 11 points in the fourth quarter, including a three pointer that put the Cats up for good and started the decisive 11-2 run to key the victory. He also grabbed a team-high nine rebounds.
When asked what he told the team after the victory, Spotleson simply said, "We told them how proud we were of them and how proud they should be of themselves. They proved a lot of things to themselves this season and all or part of the league title this year is a tribute to their character."
Teammate Armand Fontes scored 21 points in lead Canton South's balanced attack. Deckard added 13 for the Cats while Taylor chipped in with 10. Lyon and Newell each had five and Joliff rounded out the scoring with two.
South outrebounded Carrollton by the total of 38-31.
The Wildcats end the week of importance with an overall record of 18-2 and 11-2 in the NBC.
Canton South ends their regular season this week as they began the week with a non-conference game at Dover High School on Tuesday evening (Feb. 12). The Cats will close the regular season on Friday night at home against the Alliance Aviators.
Canton South is looking to win the outright title for the first time in 10 years. Tickets are on sale at the Canton South athletic office and can prices are $4 for students and $6 for adults. Prior to the game there will be at Soup for Salyers (Soup and Salad fund raiser) from 4:30 to 7 p.m. in the Canton South cafeteria, cost is $5. There will also be a Canton South building tour at 5:45 p.m. Those looking to participate should meet in the cafeteria at 5:30 p.m.
The Cats have had a bad taste in their mouths since Jan. 11 when the Aviators handed South their first loss of the season. The game will also mark Senior Night for the Wildcat seniors. Tip-off is set for 6 p.m. as South looks to secure the outright Northeastern Buckeye Conference crown in front of a packed Red Ash Gymnasium.
"We want to "stay the course," said Spotleson on his team's remaining games.
Revenge will never be sweeter.