By Mike Deak
LIGONIER – Another night of basketball at the Class 3-A West Noble Boys Basketball Sectional, another set of nail biters. Both West Noble and NorthWood were victorious Friday night, but both were Maalox Specials in a truly remarkable setting.
NorthWood 47, Wawasee 46
NorthWood never trailed in Friday night’s second semi-final against Wawasee, but it felt for much of the contest that Wawasee was in command. A 21-9 outburst by NorthWood to open the night quickly settled into a two-possession game for much of the second half, and eventually a one-possession game with the result in the balance.
Two key moments foiled the Warriors in the second half, the first a 20-second stretch in the third quarter that saw Caden Welty inexplicably draw his second, third and fourth fouls. Welty, who torched Tippecanoe Valley on Tuesday night hitting all four of his three-point tries, was forced to sit, and eventually picked up his fifth foul later in the fourth.
The second came on back-to-back back door buckets by Brock Bontrager, his and-one giving NorthWood a 41-35 lead with 1:26 to go in the game.
“I thought they hit some difficult shots coming down the stretch, which sometimes is a formula for disaster,” said NorthWood head coach Aaron Wolfe. “I thought we were able to close the game at the free throw line. Sometimes that’s really difficult when you are talking about a sectional game. I was really proud of our effort.”
But Wawasee wasn’t done, Keaton Dukes hitting two three-pointers to keep his team in it, the second making the score 45-44 with 15 seconds left. After Panther sophomore Cade Brenner hit two free throws, Wawasee got an open shot, finding Ethan Carey at the top of the arc for a try. The shot was short, and Collin Roberson put the offensive carom in. On the play, however, Brenner appeared to have hit Roberson on the arm, but the foul was not called as an eerily quiet crowd didn’t know how to react one way or the other.
As NorthWood realized it had escaped, reality set in for Wawasee head coach Jon Everingham and his side.
“We had two options there, and we found one of them and were happy with it,” said Everingham of the play, which he eluded actually is a designed play for Welty. “Grant Brooks did a good job finding the open man, Ethan, in that spot. He had a good look.
“And to be honest, I was shocked that there were any NorthWood players anywhere near the basket,” continued Everingham. “Probably not the smartest thing, but I thought the game was over when Ethan missed the three. Then Collin gets it and puts it back and (Brenner) swipes at the ball. Even if he hits him, that’s a tough one to call if you are an official.”
NorthWood was 6-6 from the line in the final minute of the game and 8-9 overall. The Panthers also shot 56 percent from the floor (18-32).
Brenner was superb with 19 points and Bontrager had 13 points.
Wawasee (12-12), which hasn’t beaten NorthWood since 2010 and not in the tournament since 2006, had Dukes lead the team with 26 points and Roberson finish with 10 points.
West Noble 61, Lakeland 53
Free throws down the stretch sealed it for the host Chargers, which were a perfect 6-6 in crunch time.
The game was just 53-51 West Noble after Bracey Shepherd nailed a three with 40 seconds left, but the Chargers went to work from the line as Lakeland went into chase mode.
The game was historic for Lakeland as it saw Braden Bontrager set a school milestone. The burly senior scored 25 points on the night, his final two points were career points 1,664 and 1,665, which passed girls basketball player Bailey Hartsough’s Lakeland scoring record of 1,664 set in February. Bontrager hit the milestone with 4:31 remaining on a pair of free throws as Hartsough bittersweetly sat in the stands watching.
Mason Douglas added 17 points for the Lakers (9-14).
West Noble (13-9) was led by Austin Cripe’s 24 points. The Chargers will host the Panthers Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. for the sectional championship. NorthWood is seeking to defend its 2020 title and win its tenth sectional championship in program history. West Noble is seeking its first-ever sectional crown.