NAPPANEE – The calendar may have read as the last day of November on Friday.
The level of play between the NorthWood and Triton boys basketball teams, however, was anything but that of normal, early-season stuff Friday night.
The Panthers and Trojans looked to be in mid-season form already in putting on a spirited show in front of a spirited crowd in an entertaining tussle in the Panther Pit.
The 1-2 Panther punch of Jonathan Wilkinson and Zach Zurcher led the way as NorthWood came up on the winning side on the scoreboard in the end to down the Class 1-A No. 4 Trojans 66-62.
Wilkinson and Zurcher, a pair of juniors coming off standout sophomore seasons, combined for 42 points in the season-opening win for the Panthers.
The back-and-forth game saw the largest lead for either team just a scant six points.
Clay Yeo turned in a brilliant effort for the Trojans, who fall to 1-2 with their second straight loss. The versatile Yeo, who has signed with Valparaiso University, popped in 31 points. Yeo, a 6-6 guard, hit 12-of-20 shots, including 3-of-6 on threes and all four of his free throw attempts.
Junior guard Tanner Shepherd came up big for Triton with 21 points. The smooth lefty hit 8-of-18 from the field, including 4-of-7 from distance.
NorthWood, which finished strong last year to post a 13-12 mark after losing in the Class 3-A regional final, got a pair of huge plays down the stretch from Zurcher. His steal and bucket gave the hosts a 64-58 lead with 1:15 to play. Shepherd then scored on a drive with 58 seconds left to cut the lead to 64-60 and Yeo followed with a hoop off a NorthWood turnover to make it 64-62 with 44 seconds remaining. Zurcher then hit a layup with just 9.5 seconds to play after NorthWood drained the clock to seal the deal.
A big key for the winning Panthers was the support Wilkinson and Zurcher had. Tanner Farmwald and Kyle McCoy each had eight big points as NorthWood outscored Triton 24-10 after each team’s top two scorers. The hosts also had a couple of favorable breaks in the game’s final two minutes, including a tough offensive foul call that went against Triton’s Seth Glingle, which was his fifth of the contest.
Triton, now 1-2, bounced back in a big way after taking a 63-43 pounding at Plymouth Tuesday night. The Trojans are shorthanded right now with several key players serving suspensions for violating athletic code rules.
“I’m proud of my guys effort tonight,” said Triton coach Jason Groves. “Our effort tonight was night and day different from Tuesday at Plymouth. It was where it needs to be every night for us. We just need this type of consistency day in and day out in practices and games.
“My pre game speech was short. I said to get after it and they did. The main thing is that they battled for four quarters and that’s what it’s all about and all I can ask of them. I like where we’re headed.
“Both teams made big plays. We’ve got some guys right now in positions they normally wouldn’t be in and young guys who are learning. It’s affected us quite a bit having guys out.”
Groves, who was extremely animated over several calls in the game’s final two minutes, took the high road.
“Tonight was not our night,” Groves said of some whistles late, including the offensive foul on Glingle that fouled him out of the game. “That’s something you can’t control and we’re not going to dwell on it.”
Triton had won four of their last five match ups with the Panthers, including a 47-34 decision in Bourbon last season.
The teams came out on fire Friday night, lighting up the scoreboard early and often from deep. Wilkinson scored nine in the opening period as NorthWood led 22-21. Shepherd had 10 points and Yeo eight in the opening frame as the two teams combined to hit nine treys.
The game was tied at 36-36 at intermission. NorthWood shot a blistering 15-of-26 from the field in the opening half, while Triton checked in at 14-of-25. Shepherd had 16 points and Yeo 14 to lead the Trojans, while Wilkinson tallied 14 to pace the Panthers. NorthWood crept ahead 52-49 after three quarters.
Yeo and Shepherd, who averaged 26 and 11 points-per-game last season, combined for 52 of Triton’s 62 Friday night.
“That’s kind of the way we were last year with Clay’s scoring,” said Groves, who has guided the Trojans to 114 wins the previous five seasons with three trips to the State Finals and a state title in 2008. “I think we have more shooters this year who can take some of the pressure off Clay.
“Clay is capable every game of what he did tonight. When he comes with the focus and the drive he had tonight to be the best player on the court, that’s what he is. I knew he had it tonight. I could see it in his eyes.”
Yeo, who entered this season with 1,335 career points, has the admiration of NorthWood coach Aaron Wolfe.
“Clay has a great combination of length, quickness and skills and you combine those with a very good basketball IQ,” said Wolfe. “He also makes a difference with his rebounding and defense and that’s what I think makes him a special player and an Indiana All-Star candidate. He’s very difficult to guard when he shoots the ball like he did tonight. All of our guys were supposed to be keeping tabs on Clay.”
Wolfe was pleased to see his team respond down the stretch.
“I was proud of my guys effort,” Wolfe said. “They showed some composure down the stretch. Offensively, we had some guys make some plays. I thought at a stretch in the fourth quarter we were able to take control with the lead, although no lead was safe tonight.
“Defensively, we made some correctable mistakes. Early on, we were losing shooters. But, this is a good start for us. Jon’s basketball game has really improved. Last year he could shoot. Now he can score off the dribble too.”
NorthWood won the junior varsity contest 38-35 in overtime. Gabe Williams scored 15 points and Cam Simpson nine for the Panthers. Jordan Anderson netted 17 points and Masen Yeo nine for Triton.
Triton (1-2) hosts North Miami Tuesday. NorthWood (1-0) hosts Westview Thursday.