SYRACUSE – It was a night where the unexpected was the norm. The host Wawasee boys basketball team found itself on the wrong end of a 42-38 loss to West Noble while the No. 2 team in the state, NorthWood, fell behind early and couldn’t catch Fairfield in a 59-51 shockwave that will be felt around the state. What a night at the Class 3-A Wawasee Boys Basketball Sectional.
When West Noble needed points, Larry Nickolson was the man. In the fourth quarter of the Chargers’ comeback win over the Warriors, Nickolson scored all 12 of the visitor’s points, including 6-6 from the free throw line.
Wawasee led 37-34 when Tyler Smith dropped in his only two points of the night. Nickolson came right back and hit a shot, getting the lead down to one. Wawasee committed a pair of turnovers, giving the Chargers the ball under a minute left with a chance to take the lead. Nickolson then worked inside and drew a foul, buried the two free throws, and came back with eight seconds left and sank two more freebies, putting West Noble up 40-37.
With all of the drama in close games around the state this week, Wawasee was looking to force its second overtime of the sectional and just about did it. Jacob Hand threw the touchdown pass to Jairus Boyer, who surprisingly was wide open inside Wawasee’s key. Boyer took a couple steps to the corner, squared up, and was fouled. The shot didn’t go, and unfortunately for the home hopes, neither did the first free throw. Upon missing his third attempt, West Noble weathered the fouls and Nickolson sealed the game with two more from the line.
The Chargers, who lost to the Warriors in Syracuse by 17 in early December and were just 2-8 in their last 10 games, pulled off the first shocker of the night.
“Free throws were not Larry’s strong suit at the beginning of the season,” said West Noble head coach Jim Best. “He has busted his tail to get better and better. It showed. The first game we played against Wawasee, they beat us pretty bad. The difference is having a whole season under our belts. We’ve grown up a lot.”
Nickolson finished with 20 points and six rebounds and Nick Knepper added 10 points. For the Warriors, Boyer had 12 points at the half and 15 points overall. Trevon Coleman, who was matched up with Nickolson most of the night, wound up with 10 points, but scored none of those in the fourth.
“We had a great group and a special season,” stated Wawasee head coach Jon Everingham, whose team closes at 6-18 overall. “I know a lot of people will see our record and maybe judge us differently, but this was a special group of guys. We had some guys play a little and some guys play a lot from game to game, but they hung with me as a coach, especially our three seniors. If they don’t buy into what we are doing, then our record becomes a long season instead of a great season. I thought we had a great season.”
Most had written this game off, a formality heading into what should have been a Panther cake walk to the regional. A quarter of the gym and a dozen guys in yellow felt otherwise.
Fairfield erupted to a 17-5 lead in the first quarter, stunning the NorthWood faithful and quickly gaining fans in both red and blue and green and gold. The Falcons didn’t trail after its run in the first, and weathered NorthWood’s certain spurts in the second half to hang on for the huge upset.
NorthWood got within four at 50-46 after Caleb Glick converted a steal on the other end. But Luke Stephens responded immediately, sinking a pair of free throws and on the second make, Luke Zurcher was called for his fifth foul away from the play. With Zurcher on the bench, the Panthers lost its leading scorer (14 points) and Stephens kept making his chances at the line, hitting five of six to put away NorthWood.
The Falcons, Brady Willard in particular, did a number on Vinny Miranda. NorthWood’s leading scorer this season at 20.0 points per night, was held to 2-7 shooting from the floor and just seven points, three of those coming at the final buzzer in an ironically fitting end to his stellar career, but meaningless in the grand scope.
Stephens would end with 22 huge points to go with four rebounds, four assists and three steals. Shandon Miller and Cordell Hofer added very emotional play and combined for 29 points and seven rebounds.
It wasn’t nearly the stunning Miracle On Ice, with Sweden waiting in the championship, but Fairfield head coach Troy Beachy certainly will take his first win in 11 tries against NorthWood and Fairfield’s first sectional championship appearance since 2010, when Fairfield won a title as a Class 2-A program under John Wysong.
“For them to have the confidence to come out and feel like they can get this one is on them. I’m doing everything I can to boost their confidence, but they have to believe it,” Beachy said. “I didn’t see any backdown. So game on.
“I thought we boarded well. That was my biggest concern was the rebounding. They have just been killing everybody on the boards. I thought for the most part they battled.”
Fairfield outrebounded NorthWood, 27-23, and committed one less turnover, 13-12, as well as attempted 34 free throws on the night to just 20 from NorthWood. The 19 makes from the Falcons was nine more than NorthWood made, creating that extra spread.
The Panthers quietly bow out of the state tournament at 21-3 while Fairfield (12-12) will take on West Noble (9-14) in the sectional championship Saturday night. The Chargers have never won a sectional title in the school’s history, Fairfield seeking its ninth overall but first in Class 3-A.