Blame it on the basket at the west end of the Sullivan Center.
That hoop yielded only 17 total points in Friday night’s boys basketball showdown between sixth-ranked Whitmer and second-ranked host Central Catholic.
Fortunately for the visiting Panthers, they were able to put a nightmarish 16 minutes behind them at halftime, then got to shoot at the much friendlier east end, and rallied to a 39-30 victory before a packed crowd of 2,200.
“It was a tale of two halves,” Whitmer coach Bruce Smith said. “We couldn’t have played any poorer in the first half. They did whatever they wanted, and they prevented us from doing anything. It was a dominating performance by them in the first half.
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“The second half, we got a couple of shots to go early, and that got us a little momentum and a little confidence. Then we played the way I think we’re capable of playing. Unfortunately it was 16 minutes instead of 32. We have to work on that.”
Whitmer had trailed 19-6 at halftime after hitting just two of its 14 first-half shots from the field against Central’s oppressive defensive effort.
After the break, the roles were reversed, as the Irish succumbed to a 4-for-25 shooting effort from the field that yielded them just 11 points.
Nigel Hayes — Whitmer’s 6-foot-7, Wisconsin-bound standout — returned after missing two games with a left ankle injury to pace the Panthers with 13 points, eight rebounds, and a sizable dose of leadership.
“In the first half I was just getting my feet back under me,” Hayes said of returning from the injury. “I’ve been out a week and a half.
“In the first half I think we kind of let the [excitement] get to us. At halftime we got grounded and we came out and got back to the basics, followed the game plan, and came out with the win.”
If there was one pivotal stat that reflected the Panthers’ escape from the Gordian Knot of Central’s defense, it was Whitmer hitting five of its eight 3-point shots in the final two quarters.
Three of those came from 5-11 junior guard Chris Parker, including two big ones in the fourth quarter.
Parker’s second 3-pointer of the game from out top gave Whitmer its first lead of the night with 4:54 remaining in the game, and his final triple form the left corner just 50 seconds later pushed the Panthers further ahead 31-27.
The win forged a first-place tie in the Three Rivers Athletic Conference between Whitmer (9-2, 5-1) and St. John’s Jesuit (10-3, 5-1), and left the previously unbeaten Irish (7-1, 3-1) a game back.
After one quarter the game appeared to be all Central. The Irish put the squeeze on Whitmer while mounting a 15-3 lead.
But the game slowed to a crawl, offensively, both ways in the second quarter, and that early momentum of the Irish ultimately dissolved and never returned.
Central scored four, five, and six points, respectively, in the final three quarters.
“It all started in the middle of the second quarter when we had three key players go down with two fouls,” Central coach Jim Welling said of his team’s downfall. “All of a sudden we’re standing around and just dribbling. There was no movement to the offense.
“We survived the half, but then we came out and did the exact same thing in the second half. This team has to start understanding that dribbling the basketball is not the answer. Fundamentals and techniques are, and I’m not sure they get that.”
The game’s crucial surge was thus not Central’s a 19-6 first half, but Whitmer’s 19-6 stretch that began with the Panthers trailing 21-9.
Hayes converted a three-point play to get things loosened up, Jon Ashe (120 points) got a layup on a feed from Me’Gail Frish, and Hayes added two free throws to pull Whitmer within 21-16.
By the end of the third quarter, after Hayes nailed a 3-pointer from the right wing, the Panthers got it to 24-22, and Central became the hunted.
“They could’ve rolled over, but we knew they’d fight back,” Welling said of Whitmer. “Their defense was really solid in the second half, their rebounding was solid, and they shot the ball well.
"If that happens, you’re going to lose leads.”
For the game, Whitmer was 12-of-31 from the field, 9-of-17 at the line, and committed eight turnovers.
Central, which was led by nine points from guard C.J. Bussey, was 13-of-45 from the field, 3-of-8 from the line, outrebounded Whitmer 33-22, and committed 12 turnovers.
Keith Towbridge added eight points and 11 rebounds for the Irish.
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