COLUMBUS - The LaBrae Vikings had become masters of defense on their path to the Division III state basketball tournament, earning black-belt praise from their opponents.
Regional wins came with embarrassing ease, including a near first-half shutout of Beachwood in the final.
The Versailles Tigers proved to be a different animal than the small Beachwood Bison. Armed with high-scoring guards Damien Richard and Kyle Ahrens, the Tigers were immune to whatever defensive combinations Vikings coach Chad Kiser came up with in a state semifinal Thursday.
The 6-foot-5 Ahrens and 6-foot-3 Richard combined for 42 points (21 apiece) to lead the Tigers to a 64-52 win before 9,514 fans at the Schottenstein Center.
The Vikings countered with their big weapon, 6-foot-7 junior Peyton Aldridge, but his 23-point effort couldn't offset the one-two punch of Ahrens and Richard.
If anything, you could say the Vikings got a taste of their medicine. Instead of frustrating the opposition with their defensive play, they were frustrated in the second half.
"They did a great job of not allowing me to get open looks," said Aldridge, who was limited to seven second-half points after scoring 16 in the first half. "They did a good job of not allowing me to get the ball, and when I did get the ball they had hands in my face. They're one of the more physical teams we've faced. They're very good at helping and contesting every shot."
Both teams checked their nerves at the door in the first half, playing with the confidence of a midseason rout. Richard scored 11 points in the opening quarter and Ahrens had 10 as the Tigers took a 21-14 lead.
Aldridge had just three first-quarter points, but that changed with a 13-point output in the second period. The surge came at an opportune time as the Vikings turned a 10-point deficit into a 37-33 halftime lead.
"It didn't seem like either team was nervous," Kiser said. "You see games down here where teams get a little tight at the beginning and they fall behind. I didn't feel that we were tight at all.
"We've done that the whole tournament where we came out confident, even at regional final. They showed up confident and believing in themselves and each other. In the second half maybe some tired legs, shooting-wise."
The Tigers (23-5) regrouped from an 11-point Vikings' run in the second quarter and controlled play from the start to the end of the second half. They reversed the score in the third quarter to lead by four (49-45) and scored 13 of the first 15 of the fourth period to take a commanding 62-49 lead.
"We've talked through this whole tournament run how every loose ball, every tipped rebound those possessions turn out to be big in a game," Tigers coach Scott McEldowney said. "It was nice when we got the lead back that we were able to spread it and make them chase us and got some easy baskets because of it."
The Vikings scored first in the fourth period on a fielder by Aldridge, but he spent the rest of the quarter dealing with a collapsing zone.
Often forced to shoot from the perimeter, LaBrae cooled off dramatically from the field, making just 6-of-26 field attempts in the second half to finish 21-of-49. Aldridge, who was 10-of-15 from the field, was an uncharacteristic 0-of-4 from the foul line.
Ahrens and Aldridge have seen each other before at AAU competition. Ahrens knew what to expect from the Vikings' standout.
"He started to hit those jump shots, but after awhile we got that hand in his face and he started missing," Ahrens said. "That's when we started going on our lead. He's a great player, though. He can hit his shots all the time."
The Tigers had a 35-26 rebounding advantage, led by Chad Winner with seven. Aldridge grabbed nine missed shots and blocked three shots.
The Vikings were able to return home proud of representing LaBrae for the first time ever in the state tournament. The good news is that Aldridge is back for his senior season.
Kiser believes that the Vikings gave everything that he asked of them.
"There's only going to be one team that wins the state championship," Kiser said. "I don't think these guys left anything unfinished. We just didn't shoot well in the second half."
LaBrae finished the season at 24-4 overall, including a win over Sebring.