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Tigers embrace underdog role

West Liberty-Salem set to take on top-ranked Summit Country Day

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Senior guard Grant Burden, right, has been a key cog in West Liberty-Salem’s run to the Division III district championship game. Burden and the Tigers take on Cincinnati Summit Country Day on Thursday at the University of Dayton. (EXAMINER FILE PHOTO | MATT HAMMOND)

The last time West Liberty-Salem’s boys basketball team played in a district championship game, the opponent was a star-studded Cincinnati North College Hill team that went on to send two players — O.J. Mayo and Bill Walker — to the NBA.

The Tigers are back in the district title game this season and they face a similar challenge. This time, the opponent is defending Division III state champion Cincinnati Summit Country Day.

The teams tangle at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at the University of Dayton.

Summit Country Day (23-1) is the top-ranked Division III team in the state.

“We’ve been pretty honest with the guys,” said WL-Salem head coach Aaron Hollar. “We realize we are the underdogs and we know we face a big challenge, but at the same time we are playing with a lot of confidence right now and we believe we can win this game.”

WL-Salem (20-5) earned its spot in Thursday’s game with sectional wins over Brookville, Waynesville and Anna.

“Our guys are excited about the opportunity they have,” said Hollar. “They are a confident group with the way they’ve played in the tournament. I really like the way they are approaching this game.”

The Silver Knights returned four starters from last year’s state championship squad and also received a boost from the addition of MaCio Teague, a sophomore sensation who returned to his hometown of Cincinnati after spending a year at the IMG Academy in Florida.

Summit’s lone loss came to perennial power Dayton Dunbar (62-54).

“They are extremely athletic and quick,” said Hollar. “They have three guards that will all end up playing Division I college basketball.”

The go-to player for the Silver Knights is 6-2 senior guard Kevin Johnson, who has signed to play at the University of Cincinnati. Ranked the 114th-best senior in the nation by Rivals.com, Johnson averages 19.4 points per game. He was recently named the Division III Southwest District player of the year.

Junior point guard Antonio Woods (5-10) averages 14.3 points per game and is shooting 54 percent from three-point range and 60 percent from the field.

Teague (6-2) already holds an offer from Seton Hall despite having two years of high school remaining. He is scoring 14.4 points per contest and is shooting 50 percent from the field.

On the inside, the Silver Knights boast a space eater in 6-2, 270-pound junior Mike Barwick. A standout on the gridiron, he has been offered scholarships by numerous Division I football programs.

Hollar is most concerned about handling the pressure the Knights will throw at his squad.

“We are going to see the best man-to-man defense we’ve seen all year,” said Hollar. “They really get after you. We have to take care of the basketball.”

The Tigers also have to avoid getting off to a slow start on the offensive end. They struggled early against both Waynesville and Anna in the sectional tournament before turning it on in the second half.

“We can’t afford to get down big early against a team like this,” said Hollar. “We have to continue to defend well and also get it going on offense at the start of the game.”

A plus for the Tigers is that they already have a game under their belts at UD, having played Anna there Friday.

“I think that is a big key,” said Hollar. “From talking to some of the coaches in the Cincinnati area, they were not real happy that the teams from our sectional were able to play (at UD in the sectional finals). I think we might have been a little overexcited Friday, but now that the guys have played there, I don’t think that will be an issue.”

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