NAPPANEE — The Panthers are back.
After a string of three straight sectional titles was interrupted in last year’s semifinal, NorthWood was eager to get back on top at Class 3A Sectional 21. The Panthers did just that Saturday, and they did it in style, barely ever even trailing Lakeland and steadily building toward a convincing, 52-33 win in front of a boisterous home crowd at The Pit.
“Coming off of last year and losing in the second round, it feels great to do this. Being senior year, six seniors, it just feels awesome,” said Caleb Lung.
“It’s unreal. We did this my freshman year, but being able to play in the game, it’s a great feeling just to be able to do this with my teammates,” echoed Kaden Gongwer. “So much fun.”
It was Gongwer’s hot shooting from the outside that got the Panthers going in the first half and Lung’s midrange prowess that kept them rolling after the intermission.
Gongwer’s first 3-pointer of the night — a quick release triple from the corner on a swing from Brad Delio — gave the home team its first lead at the 5:07 stop of the first. His second triple — a nearly identical catch-and-shoot trey on another Delio pass — gave the Panthers their final lead of the night less than two minutes later at 8-6. They never looked back as they built to a 26-18 halftime lead, withstood a revamped Lakeland effort in the third period and finally broke the Lakers during a 12-4 final period.
“Kaden established our offensive rhythm early and gave them someone to chase in their zone,” said NorthWood head coach Aaron Wolfe. “Hat’s off to our other players who found him multiple times in great shooting positions.”
“After that first shot, once it goes in you kind of know things are going to keep rolling for us,” said Gongwer, who finished the night with a game-high 19 points on 6-of-9 shooting, including 5-of-8 accuracy from 3-point range and left the floor to chants of “MVP” from the crowd.
With Gongwer’s long range attack extending the Lakeland defense, Lung went to work inside in the second half. He stayed patient over a silent first half, then knocked down 5 of 7 attempts over the final 16 minutes to finish with 10 points alongside four rebounds and a pair of assists in his final home game at The Pit. A slick move along the baseline in a two-one-one situation gave the Panthers a 14-point lead with 4:54 left to play. Delio’s steal on the other end for a fast break layup pushed that cushion out to 46-30 and got the home crowd on its feet.
“I’ve really just got to thank my teammates. I couldn’t have gotten the shots I got or got into the rhythm I got without them,” demurred Lung of his second-half performance.
NorthWood’s identity this season has been a total team identity with numerous players stepping up at different times, and Saturday’s title game was no different. While Gongwer and Lung led the Panthers in the points production, six other players landed in the scoring column led by DeAndre Smart’s seven and Delio’s six points. It was a characteristic ball-sharing effort that saw them register 14 assists — led by Delio’s six and Caleb Glick’s four — on the way to 19-of-29 (65.5 percent) shooting efficiency and a 10th straight win.
“Each year is special, and the journey that we’ve been on with our basketball team this year, they have a different feel. They are built where they are relying on each other, and they have been unselfish and an unbelievable good group to coach,” said Wolfe, who won his fifth sectional title with the Panthers Saturday.
“It’s a very good passing basketball team. We had 14 assists on 19 baskets, which shows that they’re always looking for a better shot.”
NorthWood looked pretty good on the defensive end Saturday, too.
With the Lakers looking to penetrate after the break and whittling their deficit down to as few as seven points early in the second half, the Panthers closed it down in a hurry. They held Lakeland to 5-of-17 (29.4 percent) shooting in the second half, and the result was a 36-15 half that took the suspense out of it relatively early.
“We knew that they could be explosive offensively, and we have seen them score points in a hurry. We tried to limit easy baskets as much as we could, but they are a difficult team to defend,” explained Wolfe.
Cameron Bontrager closed out his high school career with team-highs of 17 points and four rebounds to lead Lakeland (16-10), which fell a game short of its first sectional title in a decade.
NorthWood (18-5) now moves on to the Marion Regional, where the Panthers will play the host Giants in the early semifinal at 10 a.m. next Saturday. No. 1-ranked New Castle (25-2) squares off against Angola (17-8) in the late semifinal slated tentatively for noon, with the championship scheduled for 8 p.m.