KINNIKINNICK — After having his entire team together for just four practices following a run to the regional semifinal by the football team, first-year Amanda-Clearcreek coach Jamie Justus didn’t know what to expect on Friday against defending district champion Zane Trace.
The Aces more than held their own, trailing by four points at halftime and five points with just five minutes remaining. A combination of still being in football conditioning and the scoring and rebounding efficiency of Zane Trace allowed the host Pioneers to finally pull away for a 70-51 win.
“I told the kids after the game that I’ve never been more proud of a group of kids that I’ve coached than this group after the game they played tonight,” Justus said. “With just four practices and a scrimmage, we honestly don’t have a lot in and we still have our football legs, but I was very proud of the effort, the drive and the intensity our kids played with.
“We knew Zane Trace likes to come off ball screens and use their UCLA cuts, so we were able to work on those couple of things and I thought our kids did a nice job of executing the game plan.”
The Aces played catch-up for most of the night, but didn’t let the Pioneers breathe easy until the closing minutes.
Nick Nesser scored the first seven points of the game and, following a pair of baskets from Cam Evans, Justus was forced to burn an early timeout with the Pioneers leading 13-4.
The Aces eventually responded with a 9-2 run, capped by a layup by Peyton Madison to tie the game at 25-25 with 2:05 left before halftime.
A steal and layup by Madison cut the ZT lead down to 30-28, but a pair of free throws by Evans with eight-tenths of a second remaining sent the Pioneers into the break with a 32-28 lead.
Zane Trace expanded its lead to as many as 12 points in the third quarter, but the Aces made another run to open the fourth. An old-fashioned three-point play by Jeff Bolin, a trey from Lane Stevens and a putback basket by Anthony Buckley cut the ZT lead to 54-49 with five minutes remaining.
That was the closest the Aces came for the rest of the night, as the Pioneers scored the next 10 points, five of those coming courtesy of Evans, to put away the season-opener for both teams.
“Zane Trace is a really good team, especially with how long and athletic its starting five is combined with its ability to knock down the three,” Justus said. “I felt like we started feeling it a little bit as the second half went on with our conditioning, but credit Zane Trace for putting together a strong run there at the end of the game.”
While the Pioneers had a 28-26 rebounding edge over the Aces, they benefited by grabbing nine offensive boards.
“The offensive rebounds were the difference in the game,” Justus said. “Zane Trace is such a good team that it’s hard to give them second chances. They scored on most of those and there were some big buckets mixed in there.”
Jayse Miller led the Aces with 16 points, and two new starters this season — Bolin and Madison — scored 15 and 13 points, respectively.
“Everyone knows that Jayse gets us going and we wanted to get him some shots, which we were able to do,” Justus said. “Peyton and Jeff are stepping into bigger roles this season and they both played well, showed their athleticism and got to the basket. Jeff also hit some big threes for us.
“As a coaching staff, we need to get Jesse Connell more involved because he adds another dimension to our offense. We also had some nice contributions from Anthony Buckley, Lane Stevens and some of our other guys.”
Buckley led the Aces with seven rebounds and Connell chipped in six.
Evans poured in a game-high 26 points for the Pioneers and Nesser added 15 points.
The Aces (0-1) entertain Heath (1-0) on Tuesday for their home-opener, while the Pioneers (1-0) travel to Logan Elm (1-0) on Thursday for a key non-league game.
“We still have a lot of things to work on, but we’ve been getting better everyday and we’ll get back into the weight room and continue to work hard and get more of what we want to do installed for our games next week as we head towards league play,” Justus said.