NAPPANEE – The NorthWood boys basketball team needed someone to step up and be a hero on the hardwood Friday night.
Brad Delio was ready, willing and able to oblige for the Panthers.
The fearless Delio finished what he started with the biggest shot of his prep career to lift his team past Plymouth 52-51 in the Northern Lakes Conference opener for both squads.
The NorthWood guard rose up and calmly drained a short pullup jumper from the baseline with 3.2 seconds to play to lift his team to a huge league win in the Panther Pit.
The outcome of what could be a thrilling start to a wide-open chase for the conference title this year was not decided though until a 3-pointer from the right wing by Clay Hilliard caromed off the rim at the final horn for the Pilgrims.
NorthWood, which got brilliant play from Delio and Caleb Lung, improves to 5-2. The Pilgrims fall to 5-2.
Delio, a 5-10 senior, took the final shot after the Panthers called timeout with 11.2 seconds to play. That came after Benji Nixon missed the first of two free throws for the Pilgrims and the second charity toss, which was good, was wiped out by a lane violation on Plymouth.
Delio took the inbounds pass and worked his way up the right side of the court. He drove hard to the baseline and hit a tough, well-defended shot.
“Coach had confidence in me to make a play and I saw the rim and luckily it went in,” explained Delio of his game winner. “I was pretty amped up and pretty excited, but it was next play. We knew we could not give up an open look and he almost made that final shot.
“Our main focus tonight was to play together and play unselfish. On the board it said play fearless. I just went out and made plays within our offense. It was such a battle the whole game tonight. This win should build so much confidence for our team.”
The resilient Panthers, who are ranked No. 10 in Class 3-A, found a way to win a huge game despite being shorthanded. Senior Caleb Glick is out after suffering a knee injury Tuesday night in a win over Jimtown. He was on crutches Friday night, but is expected to return at some point.
Delio and Lung were simply sensational. Delio scored a game-high 21 points on 9-10 shooting and Lung finished with 19 points on 7-10 shooting. The prolific pair scored their team’s first 20 points of the contest.
“I’ve never been more proud of a team than the one I have in that locker room,” said NorthWood coach Aaron Wolfe. “What a great group of young men I’m blessed to have to coach.
“Brad just made an unbelievable play. He was unbelievable for us tonight. As a senior, he put us on his back at times.
“Brad and Caleb were both just outstanding. To score 40 points on just 20 shot attempts. We have not been able to finish until this game. This will be nothing but helpful for us moving forward.
“I have a lot of respect for Plymouth. They just battled and battled and just came up a little short. It’s came down to the last possession countless times agains them since I’ve been here. This just shows how well you have to play in the NLC to have a chance to win.”
NorthWood, which beat Plymouth 66-62 in double overtime last year, trailed 42-38 early in the final period. Delio and Lung each scored seven points in the final frame to lead the rally to the win. Lung hit a huge shot with 14 seconds left to cut the Plymouth lead to 51-50. That came after Garrett Tharp had given the Pilgrims a 51-48 advantage with a 3-point play with 35.8 seconds left.
The Panthers used a 10-0 first-quarter run to take a 16-8 lead after the opening frame. Delio scored 10 points in the opening period, including hitting a pair of treys. The hosts led 28-24 at halftime as Delio and Lung each had 10 points.
NorthWood opened the second half with a 6-0 run to take a 34-24 lead before a Plymouth timeout. The Pilgrims answered with a 14-2 run by hitting a trio of triples to take a 38-36 lead after the third period. The final frame as nip and tuck before Delio played the hero.
Nick Bean had nine points and DeAndre Smart three for the Panthers. Lung had nine rebounds and Smart six.
NorthWood shot 20-34 overall from the field, including 5-11 from distance. The hosts were 7-11 from the line and had nine turnovers.
Hilliard, a junior guard, led Plymouth with 14 points, but was just 4-14 from the field. Bryce Carmichael had 14 points and Jake Reichard 12. Freshman Reichard scored 11 of his points in the second quarter.
Plymouth went 16-36 from the field, including 8-20 from distance. The Pilgrims were 11-13 from the line and had just six turnovers.
Plymouth won the junior varsity game 62-56. Ben Vincent had 19 points to lead NorthWood, which lost for the first time. Brock Flickinger had 10 points and Jason Borkholder eight for the Panthers. Thomas Dolan had 16 points, Joe Barron 14 and Tim Tremaine 10 to pace Plymouth, which hit 13 treys in the win.
NorthWood will play Edwardsburg in the first day of its own Dan Gunn Holiday Tournament Dec. 28 at around 7:45 p.m.. The opener at 6 p.m. has Mishawaka versus South Bend Clay. The tourney concludes Dec. 29 with the consolation game at 6 p.m., followed by the championship contest.
Plymouth hosts South Bend Riley Tuesday night.