WARSAW – Zach Riley played like a man on a mission Tuesday night.
In the process, it was mission accomplished for his Warsaw boys basketball team.
Riley was remarkable in leading the Tigers past rival Plymouth 53-43 in the Northern Lakes Conference finale for both squads in the Tiger Den.
Riley totaled a career-high 19 points to go with 12 rebounds to pace Warsaw to at least a share of the NLC championship for the fourth straight year.
Coach Doug Ogle’s Tigers move to 11-9 overall and finish at 5-2 in league play. Northridge is 4-2 heading into its league finale at home versus Concord Thursday night. Plymouth, which sees its seven-game winning streak stopped, falls to 12-7 overall and finishes 4-3 in NLC action.
Riley picked the perfect time to have the premier performance of his prep career. He outscored the Pilgrims by himself 12-9 in the fourth quarter as the Tigers closed the contest with a 12-1 run over the final 2:48.
Riley, one of six seniors and the only returning starter from last season’s team that went 7-0 for the third straight year to make history in the NLC, simply did it all. The 6-2 forward refused to let his team lost at crunch time with big play after big play.
Riley got plenty of help from the duo of Tyler Metzinger and Nolan Groninger to beat the Pilgrims for the fourth straight time in the 130th meeting of the long and storied series.
Junior Metzinger scored all 13 of his points in the second half. His layup with 1:58 to play put the Tigers in the lead to stay at 43-42. Metzinger had six points in the final quarter as Warsaw outscored Plymouth 18-9 in the fourth frame. He also had a huge blocked shot with 1:45 to play to give his team a pivotal possession.
Junior Groninger, Warsaw’s leading scorer, was all about defense in this one. The 6-0 guard shut down Plymouth standout Clay Hilliard in the final period. Hilliard finished with a team-high 17 points, but was scoreless in the fourth quarter with Groninger hounding his every move. Hilliard finished 4-12 from 3-point range. He came into the contest shooting a fine 67-144 from deep on the season.
The victory was very gratifying for Ogle, whose young and inexperienced team started the NLC season with a 28-20 home loss to county rival Wawaseee back on Dec.15. That setback not only snapped Warsaw’s 21-game NLC winning streak, but also ended a string of 42 consecutive league losses for the Warriors.
“I’m thrilled for our players,” said Ogle. “It says a lot about them to hang in there and stay the course this season. It’s just a heck of an accomplishment by them to win at least a share of the NLC title.
“It’s a real tribute to our returning players to win the NLC again. It says a lot about our program to fill in with a bunch of new guys this season and to do this again.”
The moment was not lost on Riley, who was 9-12 from the free throw line, including making 5-6 in the final 50 seconds to seal the deal.
“We’ve worked hard as a team and this is huge for us going forward,” Riley said. “Everyone just bought in after our rough start. We just changed some things and got our confidence up and started to play better.
“Tonight was all about the NLC championship. I just wanted to believe in my guys and make sure that we kept our heads in it, made free throws and got rebounds.”
Riley, who was coming off a career-high 16 points in a loss at Merrillville Saturday night, has scored in double figures in six of the last seven games.
Plymouth, playing for the first time in 12 days after this game was postponed last Friday night due to the weather, closed the first quarter with a 7-0 run to lead 9-7. The Pilgrims the closed the second stanza with another 7-0 run to lead 21-18 at halftime Warsaw shot just 5-20 from the field and 6-11 from the line in the opening half.
The Tigers, who had lost their last two games, led 35-34 at the end of the third period as Hilliard drained an NBA-range trey just before the final horn. Metzinger scored seven key points in the period to forge Warsaw into the lead.
“Zach was unbelievable tonight,” emphasized Ogle. “I just appreciate how fearless he was. His leadership, his rebounding, his free throw shooting. Just phenomenal for us. He’s been through a lot of battles in football and basketball. He’s just a good guy to have on your side when the chips are down.
“Nolan’s competitive spirit showed up defensively tonight with the job he did on Hilliard. I could sense that Nolan wanted to guard him. I think that his defense was able to wear him down by late in the game.
“Tyler had a good game. It’s great for us when he can score like that and we needed it tonight.
“It’s fun to play Plymouth when it’s for an NLC championship like tonight. I go back to the days of coach Rhodes (Al Rhodes at Warsaw) and coach Edison (Jack Edison at Plymouth). That’s when I cut my teeth starting my coaching career here.”
Groninger netted nine points to go with four assists. Brian Elliott had six point, Blake Marsh four and Jaylen Reese two for the Tigers.
Warsaw shot 17-40 overall from the field, including 12-20 in the second half. The hosts were 2-6 from 3-point land, 17-25 from the line, including 11-14 in the final half, and out rebounded Plymouth 30-23. The Tigers also had just five turnovers.
Junior guard Hilliard canned 17 points and senior Kadin McCrammer 10 to pace Plymouth. The trio of Benji Nixon, Cole Filson and Jake Reichard each netted five points.
Plymouth finished 13-36 from the field, including 6-20 in the second half. The Pilgrims were 7-23 from distance and 10-14 from the line and had 10 turnovers.
Plymouth won the junior varsity game 53-42. Adam Hunter led Plymouth with 16 points, while Joe Barron had 14 and Thomas Dolan 10. Jaylen Coon scored 17 points and Keagan Larsh 12 to pace Warsaw.
Warsaw hosts Carmel Saturday night. It will be Senior Night. Plymouth plays at Huntington North Friday night.