ROOTSTOWN _ A sellout crowd crammed itself into the Rootstown High School gymnasium Tuesday night expecting the Southeast Pirates to give the Portage County League powerhouse Rovers something other PCL foes have failed to provide thus far during the 1997-98 campaign.
A true, thorough, 32-minute test.
And the Pirates certainly didn't disappoint, staying within striking distance until the waning minutes. But the Rovers passed their toughest test to date with flying colors by making every play necessary down the stretch to preserve their lead and remain unbeaten in league play, as Rootstown turned back a stubborn Southeast squad to claim the cross-division showdown, 69-61.
Rover fans did get their money's worth ... for a change.
"That had to be an exciting game to watch. Every second was tight, just as we expected it to be," said Rootstown coach Greg Bryte. "We'd never really faced a challenge like this _ we had the collar around our neck the entire way against Field (a come-from-behind victory), but this one just kept swinging back and forth.
"But our kids kept their composure down the stretch. And that's what brought us to the end."
The end appeared near early on for the Pirates (10-5, 7-4 PCL), who hit just 5-of-17 first-quarter shots and fell behind 16-7 after a layup and short jumper by Rootstown's Nic Frank. But Nick Dillon hit a 3-pointer to cut the deficit to 19-13 at the break.
Ed Hunt single-handedly kept the Pirates in contention in the second quarter by draining four 3-pointers. He scored 12 of Southeast's 14 points and outscored Rootstown on his own 12-11, although the Rovers still led 30-27 at halftime.
"Ed needed a game like this to get him going," said Pirates coach Bob Dunn. "He played to his potential."
Hunt's fifth trey triggered an 11-0 Southeast run, culminated by a 3-pointer by Jimmy Eatinger which gave the Pirates a 39-35 lead with 3:52 left in the third quarter.
But the Rovers (14-2, 11-0) immediately answered with a run of their own.
Frank hit a 3-pointer to put Rootstown back in front 41-39, and Nathan Burrell turned teammate Jeremy Rogers' steal into a three-point play to cap a 13-0 quarter-ending spurt that put the Rovers on top 48-39.
"We knew it would be a game of runs, because we both play that way," said Bryte. "I just told the kids after Southeast made their run to take care of the ball and get good shots. And that's exactly what we did."
Still, the Pirates wouldn't fold.
Eatinger was fouled while attempting a 3-pointer, and made all three free throws to bring Southeast within 59-56 with just under two minutes remaining. But Jimmy King fed Rob Hemrick for a layup on the Rovers' next possession, and Josh Collins made 4-of-4 free throws in the final minute to finish off the Pirates.
"We just couldn't get the big shots to go in," said Dunn, whose Pirates hit 10 3-pointers but shot just 35 percent from the field overall (20-of-57). "You can say that's the fault of our shooters, but you also have to give Rootstown credit for playing good defense. Their kids showed why they're undefeated (in the PCL)."
Frank finished with game-highs of 22 points and 13 rebounds to lead the Rovers. Hemrick tossed in 15 points, while Collins and King added 11 points each.
Hunt poured in six 3-pointers and finished with 21 points along with Eatinger for the Pirates.