WINONA LAKE – As hosts of a basketball invite, it’s never ideal to go winless after a long day of hoops. Warsaw finally got it going in the second half, dug in on the defensive end, and saved a little face Saturday night with a 43-38 win over Fishers in the final game of the Champions of Character Classic at Grace College.
The four-game set, with Warsaw taking on Fishers in the nightcap after starting with No. 7 Zionsville in the morning, saw the host Tigers claw itself to a win by way of some grinding defense.
The final minute of the game compacted what Warsaw had attempted and started to accomplish the first three and a half quarters. Leading 39-38 after Nolan Groninger hit one of two free throws with 47.6 seconds left, Warsaw pinched in on Fishers trying to feed the ball into an oft-open post area. Tyler Metzinger came up with a big steal of the entry and added a free throw on the other end to put his team up two.
As Fishers again tried to exploit the lane in its attempt to tie the game, Warsaw’s pursuit on Josiah Matthews’ drive to the bucket sent the Fishers guard well past the mark and his shot flailing well off target. Warsaw would hit three of four free throws to close out the win.
“We were just trying to be physical, and challenged our players to be more physical with them inside,” said Warsaw head coach Doug Ogle. “We did a pretty good job with that for the most part. We did get outrebounded (19-15), and that’s not good.
“We’re just really happy with this win. We needed it badly.”
Fishers had established itself inside early in the first half, and took advantage of Warsaw’s carelessness with the ball. A sloppy giveaway early led to a fast break dunk by Brendham Russom, and Warsaw saw a trio of skip passes sail unattended out of bounds. But a 17-8 Fishers lead in the second quarter slowly evaporated, as Groninger converted an and-one, and Jaylen Reese also got the hoop and the harm right at the halftime buzzer, converting the play to put the home Tigers down just 25-22.
Warsaw took its first lead at 30-29 in the third, but Fishers scored the final four points of the quarter to set up the fourth, which opened with an and-one by Brian Elliott to tie the game.
Groninger, who was named to the inaugural tournament’s All-Tournament Team, led the Tigers with 17 points and four assists, making much of his hay at the stripe, going 9-11. Zach Riley had a good night, contributing 11 points and nine boards, and Reese added seven points.
“That’s a good win for us,” said Ogle of his 4-7 Tigers. “We’re struggling. I’m hoping this will be a nice boost for our mojo.”
Jordan Jones, the All-Tourney Team representative for Fishers (4-5), had eight points and three rebounds. Willie Jackson led the visiting Tigers with nine points and Jeremy Szilagyi chipped in eight points and four boards.
Zionsville 48, Warsaw 36
The handles and the creative ability of Eagles point guard Isaiah Thompson was too much for Warsaw to contain in the morning session.
Thompson, a 6-0 junior with offers from the likes of Butler and Purdue, dropped 26 points including six treys, and added four assists and three steals.
Warsaw couldn’t keep pace offensively, with Groninger at 12 points and Elliott at nine points. A 19-7 start to the game in favor of Zionsville made all the difference.
Wrapping up the day, it was a tough one for No. 11 Valparaiso, losing both of its contests to Fishers, 62-45, and Zionsville, 67-55.
Brandon Newman of Valparaiso and Thompson were named to the All-Tournament Team.
In keeping with the theme of the tournament namesake, Grace College issued Champions of Character plaques to deserving players on each squad. Those were given to Szilagyi, Newman, Nick Marsh of Warsaw and Luke Mann of Zionsville.
Before the game, longtime Warsaw coaching legend Al Rhodes was honored. Rhodes, currently the coach of the Penn Kingsmen boys basketball team, was joined at midcourt by Zionsville head coach Shaun Busick, Valpo head coach Barak Coolman, Fishers head coach Matt Moore and Ogle as all four head coaches were assistants for Rhodes along the way of his coaching journey. Ogle, who took over for Rhodes at Warsaw in 2002, served as an assistant to Rhodes for 17 years.