MARION — This year’s NorthWood boys basketball team was a special one, one that will likely stand out in head coach Aaron Wolfe’s memory — and the 11-year skipper has coached more than a few special young men.
The Panthers were up against a tough regional field headed into Saturday’s Marion tournament, facing a 15th-ranked Giants squad on its home floor for the chance at a likely match-up against the No. 1 team in Class 3A in New Castle in the championship. With six seniors on its roster, NorthWood was playing for one more week together. But a talented, young Marion squad wasn’t ready to call it a year yet either, and in the end the Giants had their way with a 65-51 victory in the regional-opener in Marion.
“I’m very, very proud of our guys. Love our seniors, everything that they’ve done for our basketball program and for each other. It is a special group of young men, and the hardest thing to do is to let those guys go,” said Wolfe after the game. “It’s very difficult to win your last game, so you know that your season at some point comes to an end. It’s just you were trying to steal another week.”
The Panthers (18-6) and the Giants (20-6) swapped leads a total of five times over the first quarter, but a 15-5 start to the second period gave the hosts a lead they would never relinquish. It was still anybody’s ball game at the half, with Marion holding a tenuous, 29-27 lead, but the Giants cranked up the tempo during an 8-2 start to the second half — part of an 11-5 quarter by the home team — and found still another gear in the final stanza to advance to the championship opposite No. 1-ranked New Castle (26-2), a 49-35 winner over Angola (17-9) in the late semifinal in Marion Saturday.
“I thought we executed on offense and were able to get some good spacing and were able to make them pay in some circumstances where they gambled on defense. I thought in the third quarter they made some better decisions defensively,” explained Wolfe.
It was the Giants’ transition game that undid the Panthers, as they used trapping half court pressure to fluster usually steady NorthWood into 16 turnovers — which Marion happily converted into 19 points — and pushed the ball up the floor equally well off the defensive glass. With the Panthers struggling to knock down shots over the second half — they converted at a 9-of-31 (29 percent) clip after the break — and nine giveaways by the visitors over the final 16 minutes of play, there was ample opportunity to do both.
“I thought their half court trap bothered us. I thought we would’ve had to shoot really well in that section, and it put them in transition and they’re a juggernaut in transition where they were able to get some easy shots, separate the score,” said Wolfe.
Freshman point guard Jalen Blackmon looked every bit as good as advertised for Marion, meanwhile.
The son of coach James, Sr. and the brother of IU players James, Jr. and Vijay put up a game-high 21 points to go with four assists, five rebounds and two steals. He finished at a 6-of-14 rate from the floor, but it was his ability to find the open teammate while under pressure that also proved a difference-maker for a Giants lineup that saw three other players — Dre Aguilar, Tyrese Cobb, Latrell Simpson — at or near double figures and a total of eight players in the scoring column.
“He is an elite freshman right now in the state of Indiana. His shot-making ability, his ability to control the game without turnovers and also his vision when you do bring people to him — at times he’s a finish or find, which is a very rare guard,” Wolfe said.
NorthWood got a double-double of 18 points and 14 rebounds from senior Caleb Lung and 12 points from junior Kaden Gongwer.
Gongwer scored 12 of his 15 points before halftime but made just one shot after the intermission, while Lung scored 12 of his 18 battling in the fourth quarter of his final performance for the Panthers.
“Kaden got some looks. I thought that they might’ve extended him a little bit, where maybe he wasn’t getting shots on the line, but he was having to expend a tremendous amount of energy on both ends of the floor and I think maybe his legs went a little bit on him late in that game,” explained Wolfe of Gongwer.
“Caleb Lung showed tremendous grit. He battled bell to bell, not only in this game but the entire season. He was a warrior today, and we’re very proud of him.”
Also for NorthWood, Caleb Glick scored eight points with six rebounds and four assists. He closed his high school career alongside a deep cast of six seniors, which also included starters Brad Delio and DeAndre Smart, as well as Luke Holland and Jordan BeMiller. This year’s was a group that came together to win 10 of its last 11 games and secure their program its seventh sectional title with a particularly team-oriented brand of basketball.
“This group was very close on and off the floor, and I think their relationships bled into their play,” said Wolfe. “And that makes you proud of them but it also makes it a lot of fun to watch and be around on a daily basis. Our coaching staff has really enjoyed coaching this basketball team.”