STEUBENVILLE - Mark Romick didn't exactly know how to feel following Tuesday's game inside the Crimson Center at Steubenville High School.
After he watched his third-seeded Pilots check out of the Division III Eastern District tournament to Sandy Valley, 59-57, he was running the full gamut of emotions.
First and foremost, he was disappointed about the outcome, but he was also proud of how his team battled back from being down by as many 15 in the second half to tie the game with less than 20 seconds to go.
"It's a testament to the type of kids we have because they'll come out and fight tooth-and-nail until the end and never give up," Romick said.
On the other side of the equation, he simply couldn't put his finger on what led to the uncharacteristic slow start that saw the Cardinals score the first nine of the game and eventually own an 18-4 lead after one quarter.
"They came out and jumped on us," Romick said. "We got a slow start and we had to battle out of a hole all night."
A major thorn in the River side was senior Bryce Offenberger. The nephew of head coach Gary Offenberger, he knocked home a trio of treys and scored 11 of his 14 in the first quarter.
That slow start maybe didn't bother Romick as much as the one in the second half. After shaving the deficit to eight at halftime when Isaac Curtis buried what proved to be his only trey of the game from the corner, the Pilots began the third quarter with a scoring drought that lasted more than four minutes.
In that span of time, the Cardinals had run off seven straight and led 35-20. The deficit went back to 15 at 39-24 before the Pilots finally swung the momentum.
"Until we got up (defensively), started pressuring and made it a full-court game, we couldn't get the tempo to our favor. We got down 15 and had to gamble," Romick continued. "I told the kids, 'let's go get them and if they score, they score because we have to do something to change the tide.'"
The message got across loud and clear. River closed within 12 at 42-30 at the final stop.
After being held relatively in check in the opening three quarters, Pilots' junior Lukas Isaly came alive in the fourth. Quite simply, he put his team on his back.
Senior Michael Collins, who scored 10 points in support of Isaly's outburst, connected on a trey to get River within nine at 44-35. Then Isaly fully took over.
The Eastern District's Division III Player of the Year procceded to score the next 20 Pilot points. Sandy Valley managed 12 during Isaly's onslaught, seven of which came from senior Chad Neisel, who gave River fits all evening on the interior.
"We had opportunities," Romick said. "Actually, we had more opportunities than we took advantage of. We turned them over, but we'd turn it over right back to them at times."
Isaly's second three-point play of the fourth got River within two at 56-54 with just under 30 seconds to play. Sandy Valley cashed one of two from the line, pushing the margin back to three. Isaly remained involved, however. He drove into the lane and as the Sandy Valley defense collapsed, he found Jordan Doty in the corner for a game-tying trey with just under 20 seconds to go.
The Pilots, however, committed a foul in the backcourt, which sent Offenberger to the line. He made one of two. Romick called a time out and with just under five seconds, the Pilots went to work, but Isaly opted for a 17-footer, which was off and Sandy Valley rebounded with 1.9 to go.
"Lukas is beating himself up, but I'd give him the ball in that situation 100 out of 100 times," Romick said. "I told him that we wouldn't have been in that situation without him, so he has nothing to be ashamed of. We set a good screen, they switched and we got a wide-open look. He's knocked that shot down all year, but tonight, it rimmed out. We'll still take that every time."
The Cardinals again made one-of-two. River's desperation heave was on line, but too strong.
Isaly finished with a game-high 33. Included in his line was a sharp 15-of-16 effort at the foul line.
Sandy Valley was led by Neisel's 20 points. In the second half, Neisel became Sandy Valley's all-time leading scorer with 1,256 points. Offenberger's production backed him.