NAPPANEE – Nolan Groninger has elevated his play to a much higher level in the past month.
In the process, the resurgent Warsaw boys basketball team has elevated itself back into a very familiar spot atop the Northern Lakes Conference standings.
Groninger turned in an outstanding offensive performance Friday night to lead the Tigers to a huge 42-35 win over NorthWood in a key league clash.
But it was a play on the defensive end by the savvy Tiger point guard that may have saved the day as Warsaw posted its sixth straight win.
Groninger came up with a huge steal with 1:31 to play and his team clutching to a precarious 37-33 lead. He was fouled on a drive to the basket after the theft and calmly drained a pair of free throws with 1:27 left to make it 39-33.
Groninger led the Tigers with a game-high 22 points. The poised junior hit 14-15 from the free throw line, including calmly canning 11-12 in the fourth quarter for 11 of his team’s 15 points in the final frame.
Senior Caleb Glick led NorthWood with 13 points. The Panthers, who have lost three in a row, fall to 8-5 overall and go to 2-3 in NLC play.
Warsaw, which has gone 7-0 to claim the outright NLC championship each of the last three seasons, moves to 9-7 overall and now leads the NLC at 4-1 with four straight wins in league action. Northridge and Elkhart Memorial are 3-2 in conference play, as is Plymouth. The Raiders lost 53-29 at Plymouth and Memorial dropped a 53-51 decision at home to Goshen in NLC contests Friday night.
Groninger has been a huge force for the Tigers in their amazing turnaround. He has scored in double figures in 10 straight games and is averaging 16.8 points-per-game during the current six-game win streak. He is also 48-57 from the line and has 25 assists and 12 turnovers during the last six games.
The Tigers, who have now defeated the Panthers four straight times, saw a 16-point lead in the third period sliced all the way down to two at 35-33 with 2:55 left before Groninger’s stellar steal and fabulous free throw shooting sealed the win.
“That defensive play by Nolan saved the game for us,” said Warsaw coach Doug Ogle. “We were on our heels and could easily have lost this game. It was just a savvy defensive play on his part.
“Just a lot of poise from Nolan tonight. He handled the ball and only had one turnover in 30 minutes. And to hit that many free throws when we needed them is really impressive. He’s just become stronger with the ball and more poised in this stretch. He’s legit.”
The soft-spoken Groninger, who is averaging a team-high 13.6 points-per-game, would prefer just to let his play do the talking.
“It’s just easy to play with my teammates,” said the humble Tiger leader, who was shooting 84.4 percent from the line entering play Friday night. “They rebound and knock down shots. They had our defense packed in and I just looked for the ball on that steal.
“I worked on my free throws a lot in the offseason because that was not a strength. I’ve started attacking and gotten to the line more. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. That’s one of coach Ogle’s quotes.
“I think that we have bought in to what coach Ogle wanted and grown as a team. We’ve locked up on defense and are not allowing a lot of points and winning brings a lot of confidence with it.”
Warsaw led 5-4 after the opening period and 16-7 at halftime. NorthWood went just 2-10 from the field in the first half with both shots being 3-pointers. The Tigers were 6-15 from the field, including 4-11 from distance, in the first half.
The Tigers extended their lead to 26-10 on a three-point play by Groninger with 5:29 left in the third period. NorthWood, led by Caleb Glick, rallied to cut the deficit to 27-19 at the end of the third stanza. The Panthers continued to rally in the final frame as Kaden Gongwer and Brad Delio each hit a big triple in the period. The hosts got within 35-33 when DeAndre Smart hit 1-2 free throws with 2:55 to play.
The Tiger ace canned a pair of free throws with 1:56 left to make it 37-33 before getting his steal and pair of charity tosses with 1:27 to play. After Glick hit two free throws for NorthWood with 1:16 left, Groninger hit two more free throws and Tyler Metzinger added one in the final 30 seconds to seal the win.
“I thought that we fouled too much in the second half and gave them free throw opportunities,” noted Ogle. “They also hit some shots and we had some miscues offensively.
“I was real happy at 26-10. I thought that we started the game good and started the third quarter good.”
Warsaw was 10-27 overall from the field, including 5-14 from distance. The Tigers went 17-21 from the line and had six turnovers. The Tigers have made 90-116 free throws as a team during their six-game win streak.Their six foes are a combined 42-68 from the line.
NorthWood shot just 8-26 overall, including 5-15 from deep. The Panthers, who have struggled from the line at just 56 percent as a team prior to Friday night, were solid there at 14-20 and out rebounded Warsaw 25-17.
“I’m proud of our guys and how they battled to get back in the game,” said NorthWood coach Aaron Wolfe. “We just had some empty possessions late and Warsaw does what they are very good at in getting to the line and shooting free throws.
“Groninger did a nice job getting fouled. Credit to him for getting to the line 15 times tonight. It was tough to get an offensive rhythm in that first half with some long stretches in between shot attempts and we did not make shots in that second quarter.
“Our team just needs to stay the course and continue to improve weekly. We will find spots where we played extremely well tonight. We just need to get more consistent in all phases on the game.”
Sophomore Brian Elliott had eight points and the quartet of senior Jack Rhoades, juniors Tyler Metzinger and Jaylen Reese and sophomore Blake Marsh each had three points for Warsaw.
Senior Caleb Lung, NorthWood’s top scorer at almost 13 pointts-per-game, tallied seven points. senior Delio scored six points, while senior Smart had four, junior Gongwer three and senior Luke Holland two for the Panthers.
Warsaw will wrap up NLC play at Elkhart Memorial Feb. 1 and then by hosting Plymouth Feb. 9.
Warsaw won the junior varsity game 49-45. Jaylen Coon had 16 points to lead the Tigers. Connor Lennox scored 10 points, Keagan Larsh nine and Drew Yeager eight for Warsaw. Trent Edwards canned 30 points, including going 10-16 from the line, to pace NorthWood.
Warsaw hosts Elkhart Central Saturday night. NorthWood plays at Concord Thursday night.