ELKHART CENTRAL — Warsaw junior Blake Marsh has made himself something of a second home at North Side Gymnasium.
The last time the Tigers squared off against Elkhart Central at the Blazers’ gym, Marsh went off for seven points in overtime to propel his team to the win. He provided some more late heroics in Friday’s sectional semifinal rematch, scoring eight of his team-high 12 in a decisive fourth period, including the game-winner with under three seconds left to play.
That floater from the edge of the lane lifted the Tigers to a thrilling, 43-41 win and got the Warsaw student section chanting “This is our house.” It certainly seemed to be Marsh’s house, anyway.
“My teammate Nolan Groninger has been telling me ‘You have to embrace this gym. It’s a unique gym; you’ve got to embrace it. If you embrace it, you’re going to play well,’” explained Marsh. “So when I came in I just embraced the gym and played well.”
Marsh looked particularly good down the stretch, knocking down all three of his shots in the fourth period. A pair of free throws in the double bonus with 53.5 seconds to go gave Warsaw its first lead since the 6:11 stop of the second period. After Camron Daniels converted both his charity tosses on the other end to tie it up at 41-all and a Warsaw timeout, Marsh slashed into the corner of the lane, pulling up over Laz Miller for the game-winning floater from around 12 feet out. With just 2.6 seconds on the clock, there was just enough time for Central to heave a full court desperation pass, which Jalen Reese picked off and flung toward the Warsaw end of the floor as time expired, and the Warsaw bench emptied onto the floor in celebration.
“Coach (Doug) Ogle was saying ‘Get the ball in the paint. Get the ball in the paint. There’s going to be open shots.’ So I got the ball, I pass-faked, and I knew they would fall for it because they want to get the steals. I just rose up and made the shot,” said Marsh.
“We know that Blake Marsh is a tremendous competitor. It wasn’t just the last shot that he decided to hang and bang. It was several plays mixed in there,” said Ogle.
“I thought our team demonstrated incredible grit tonight. It was ugly. It couldn’t have been any more ugly for us most of the game and yet our guys just kept chipping away and kept fighting. Sometimes you just have to win ugly, and that’s what we did tonight.”
Central’s ball-hawking, in-your-face, trap-everywhere defense made it ugly, and the Blazers flustered Warsaw into 18 turnovers for the night. Six of those came in the second quarter alone, when the Tigers went 0-for-5 from the floor after a 6-of-7 first period. Those woeful numbers pushed Central into a 25-18 halftime advantage, a cushion that the home team grew to as many as 11 points with only 1:55 remaining in the third stanza.
“Tonight I felt our pressure was really good. Warsaw struggled with it in the beginning,” said Central coach Barry Singrey. “Coach Ogle is a great coach. We knew he’d be prepared for it so we played around with doing a few things different, and we said ‘Nope. This is who we are.’ We came out and just tried to pressure them even harder, and it really paid off. Unfortunately we just couldn’t pull it out at the end.”
“It’s one of the most unique defenses we’ve played. No team has trapped the entire game, from start to finish, so it’s something we’ve prepared a lot for in practice, but no matter how much you practice it’s still not the real thing,” explained Warsaw forward Tyler Metzinger. “That was hard to adjust to, but over time we just kind of adjusted to it.”
Warsaw gave Central a taste of its own medicine with its own brand of full court, trapping pressure, and the Blazers surrendered a turnover for each and every takeaway. Groninger, Marsh and Reese each notched two steals as the home team turned the ball over 18 times, and the Tigers capitalized with 15 points off turnovers.
“There’s a couple possessions we’d like to have back, but when you’re a freshman, freshman at a guard, a couple other guys with not a lot of returning varsity experience — I know it’s the end of the year, but we’re also playing a really good team,” said Singrey. “They did a good job pressuring us. Just a few things didn’t go our way, a few calls didn’t go our way that I wish would’ve, and we still had a shot at the end.”
A 6-0 start to the third period put the Tigers in the hole by 11 points, the largest margin of the night, with just under two minutes remaining in the quarter. But Warsaw closed the quarter on a 7-0 run of its own to pull within six, then opened the final stanza on a 6-1 spurt to whittle that deficit down to a single point at 32-31. While Marsh provided the game-winner, fellow senior Metzinger matched his production in the period with eight points in the fourth on his way to 11 for the night as the only other Tiger in double figures.
“None of us are really ready to go home. It’s sectionals our senior year, and we knew we could play better,” Metzinger said. “That was not the best basketball we could play so we just came together. We had been down before earlier in the season, and we know how to bounce back as a team.”
Groninger scored just eight points but passed out seven assists and pulled down a game-high five rebounds as Warsaw out-boarded its hosts by a 25-16 margin. Trevor Rumple finished with another eight points for the Tigers (15-7).
Central was paced by Daniels’ 12 points, while Ryan Charles finished with seven points and three steals for the Blazers (5-16).
Warsaw advances to play Northridge in Saturday night’s Sectional 4 championship. The Raiders (17-8) knocked off Northern Lakes Conference foe Plymouth, 58-57, in another nail-biter in Friday’s nightcap. The familiar foes will tip off at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, when Ridge looks to avenge a 67-56 loss to the Tigers on Jan. 4.
“We’ll muster up. We’ll muster up and be ready to go tomorrow night,” said Ogle.