After sitting out most of last season with a foot injury and scoring just two points, no one on Centerville’s boys basketball team was looking more forward to this season than senior Kaleb Mitchell.
And then it happened again. He landed awkwardly in a preseason practice and strained a knee ligament. That made him a cheerleader the first two games.
“I was very nervous, but as soon as I stepped on the floor I was ready,” said Mitchell, who made an impressive delayed debut during Friday night’s 53-50 dogfight defeat of visiting Fairmont. “I was just happy to get back on the floor.”
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Elks’ teammate Mo Njie tallied 17 points, including 15 in the second half, and Mitchell added 15 points. The win pushed Centerville (2-1) into an early season tie with Springfield for the Greater Western Ohio Conference National East lead, both at 2-0.
It was a breakout – and career high performances – by both the 6-foot-3 Mitchell and Njie, the impactful 6-9 junior center. It also finally gave Centerville coach Brook Cupps a glimpse of the Elks’ potential.
“(Mitchell) adds just a different dynamic to what we do,” Cupps said. “He helps us so much defensively because of his ability to guard and keep people in front of him. We definitely missed him those first two games.”
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Tied at halftime, the Elks continually fed Njie after the break and he responded by scoring all but two of his points in the second half to go with eight rebounds and four blocks. Trailing by six, Centerville took control early in the fourth quarter and won despite hitting just six of 14 free throws.
Fairmont senior Kellan Bochenek hit a 3-pointer - the last of his 15 points - that pulled the Firebirds within 52-50 with 43 seconds left. Centerville’s Ryan Ballard converted a free throw with 3.1 seconds left and Fairmont missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
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It was Centerville’s 12th consecutive defeat of Fairmont, which hasn’t beaten the Elks since mid-December of 2013, Blair Albright’s first season as the Firebirds’ coach.
“It’s early and it’s a big game for Game 2,” Albright said. “Both teams are in the same situation. If you’re really a fan of basketball, you’re loving what you see out there.”
There was a lot to like in Fairmont’s Ryan Hall. The 6-4 senior scored a game-high 24 points and was a matchup mismatch for the Elks. Also a football standout at receiver and defensive back, Hall has an offer from Tiffin University to play football, although basketball might be in his future.
“He played great,” Albright said. “Ryan is an elite-level athlete and he’s a very skilled basketball player. He’s a three-and-a-half to four-year varsity player and it shows out there. He did a nice job (Friday) showing what he can do.”
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Centerville (2-1) beat Springboro in its opener and lost by three to Kentucky state power Louisville Trinity. Centerville is at another state power – Trotwood-Madison – on Tuesday. Trotwood opened with a 133-50 win at West Carrollton on Friday.
Fairmont (1-1) landed a rare defeat of Wayne in its opener and is idle until next Friday at Springboro (1-2).
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