ELKHART — Those who laugh last, laugh best, and after Warsaw’s Sectional 4 rematch with Elkhart Memorial, the Tigers were the ones smiling.
Exactly a week prior, Memorial had taken a 48-45 victory from Warsaw on its home floor, forcing the Tigers to share their fifth-straight Northern Lakes Conference title with the Chargers. Warsaw went on to close the regular season on a three-game losing streak, but if their confidence was flagging headed into the Elkhart Central tourney, the Tigers didn’t show it. Even a delay arriving at historic North Side Gymnasium couldn’t derail them.
Warsaw jumped out to a 10-point lead in the first period and never once trailed on the way to a 65-50 sectional reprisal of the Chargers. They advance to play host Central in Friday’s early semifinal at 6 p.m.
“We were angry. We were mad at ourselves for how we played last Tuesday,” explained Warsaw coach Doug Ogle. “The Carroll game didn’t help. Last night’s practice wasn’t exceptional so I didn’t know how we were going to play. I was praying we were going to get off to a good start, and we got here late. There was a wreck near the school. We got here about 6:25. We were wanting to get here around 6:10, so we had to hurry around, and I told the players ‘You know what? That’s alright. It’s happened before, and we’ve played well.’ We handled that hiccup pretty well.”
They certainly did.
Warsaw’s defense held Memorial to 1-of-11 shooting over the first period, and the Tigers knocked down 6-of-9 shots in the span, gapping the Chargers 13-3 just eight minutes in. Memorial got its offense rolling somewhat in the second stanza, but Warsaw won that quarter, too, and Ogle’s squad held a healthy, 32-17 cushion at the intermission.
As the Tigers knew they would, the Chargers made a run back in the third, whittling their deficit to as few as seven points on Hank Smith’s second triple of the stanza with just 1:41 remaining in the period. But Warsaw closed out the quarter with six unanswered points, and the margin hovered around double digits through the final buzzer.
“We got it back to 13, I think it was and it was close to being we’re only up six or seven going into the fourth quarter, and that would’ve been bad. So I was proud of our poise,” said Ogle.
“I was feeling pretty composed. We’ve all played a lot of basketball. We’ve played a lot of games so we’ve been in all kinds of situations and just had to stick to what we knew,” said senior point guard Nolan Groninger.
Fresh from being named Player of the Year by both Ink Free News and the Warsaw Times-Union, Groninger finished with a near triple-double of 14 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists in a do-it-all performance for his team. He scored eight of his points as Memorial tried to rally in the second quarter.
“Groninger played great. He was able to handle the ball, and he had 10 rebounds. Wow, unbelievable for him,” Ogle said. “Groninger was tremendous tonight.”
As good as Groninger was, fellow senior starter Tyler Reese may have stolen the spotlight.
Reese finished with a team-high 17 points on perfect, 5-for-5 shooting from the floor and notched four rebounds, two assists, two blocked shots and a steal. His defensive effort on Smith helped hold the Memorial sharpshooter to only eight points, which he needed 19 shots to reach.
“You have to appreciate Jaylen Reese. He is the consummate team player, and for him to have a game like this in this situation is just huge for him and huge for us,” said Ogle. “We get points like that and the defense, it’s going to be a big confidence-boost for him, I can tell you that. I am really happy for him.”
“It was a lot of fun to be out there and competing,” Reese said. “We had a good game plan coming into tonight. The ball just kind of found me — I was thankful that my teammates found me, and the ball went in tonight. It was a good night to have.”
Reese was huge down the stretch for his team, with 10 of his points coming in the final period. Those late heroics included a one-handed stuff on a breakaway with under two minutes left to play, a dunk that pushed the Tigers back out to a 15-point lead and set the Warsaw bench off.
“My teammates have been giving me a lot of criticism for not getting a dunk yet because they know I’ve been able to dunk since sophomore year. Once I finally did, all that talk went away,” he said with a smile.
Reese and Groninger led a cast of four players in double figures as Trevor Rumple finished with 11, and Tyler Metzinger scored 10 for the Tigers. With several players in foul trouble early in the physical rematch and both Wyatt Amiss and Rumple ultimately fouling out in the fourth, Warsaw’s bench came up big in a total team effort. Warsaw got a total of 21 points from its reserves, including Rumple’s 11 points and six from junior Keagan Larsh.
“We needed everybody to contribute. We knew Memorial was going to put up a lot of points. They did, and we had to keep up with them,” Groninger said. “Everybody had to step up. It was a good team win.”
Senior Trey Gallope led Memorial in his final high school game with 16 points, six rebounds and three assists. Smith and D’Arjon Lewis each finished with eight for the Chargers, who were held to just 14-of-50 (28 percent) shooting compared to Warsaw’s 25-of-43 (58 percent) scoring clip. Memorial closes at 16-7.
Warsaw moves to 14-7 and will play Elkhart Central in another sectional rematch at 6 p.m. Friday night. The Tigers won 54-43 in overtime versus the Blue Blazers in their last meeting on Jan. 26. Friday’s winner will advance to Saturday’s championship.
“We’ve got a one-game winning streak now, and that’s what we were trying to do,” said Ogle.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The original version of this story misrepresented the outcome of Warsaw’s game with Elkhart Central on Jan. 26 as a loss. The article has been changed to correct the mistake.