In the inaugural Blade High School Basketball Classic at the Huntington Center Monday, the best of the five games was saved for last as the Northern Lakes League's preseason favorite battled right down to the wire with one of the City League's top projected boys teams.
In the end, it was undefeated Whitmer knocking NLL leader Bowling Green from the unbeaten list with a 60-56 victory, paced by 19 points from 6-foot-7 sophomore standout Nigel Hayes.
The Panthers (5-0) also got 13 points from senior point guard Ben Syroka, 11 points and 11 rebounds from 6-7 junior center Chris Wormley, and 10 points off the bench from sophomore guard Luke Hickey.
The contributions were all necessary in helping Whitmer survive a tense stretch run without Syroka, who fouled out with 4:44 remaining. It also enabled the Panthers to overcome a superb 22-point, 12-rebound effort from Bobcat senior star Chauncey Orr.
"We did a nice job taking care of the ball in the fourth quarter," Whitmer coach Bruce Smith said. "They amped the pressure up a little bit, and Nigel made some nice plays down the stretch, Chris put in a nice finish, and we made free throws [7-of-9 in final quarter]. That was big."
Bowling Green (6-1) led 50-46 with 5:28 to play after getting two free throws from Orr, who was a perfect 14-of-14 from the line.
Although Mike Szymanski's 12-footer from the lane got the Panthers back within two just 11 seconds later, Whitmer's chances appeared to take a hit when Syroka, its lead ball handler, was called for a charge and exited the game.
But Hickey nailed a clutch 3-pointer from the left corner at the 4:12 mark for a 51-50 edge, and the Panthers never trailed again.
Orr's final two free throws of the night got the Bobcats within 55-53 with 42.8 seconds left, before Whitmer answered with two free throws from Hayes, one from Hickey, and two more from Hayes.
"It helps knowing that, when our point guard goes down, we still know that we've got the talent to bring it through and get the win," Hayes said. "This shows that we can play with the best of the best, and we can play with the big men and the great guards.
"It shows we have the potential to be a great team. Each game we're getting better at defense, and our offense is starting to click. If we put it all together we can be a pretty dangerous team."
The Panthers were 20-of-36 (55 percent) from the field and 15-of-24 (63 percent) from the line. BG, which outrebounded Whitmer 29-27 and hit 18 of its 19 foul shots, struggled from the field (17-of-51, 33 percent).
Senior guard Xavier Brown added 16 points and five boards for the Bobcats.
"We stumbled at our offensive end," BG coach Von Graffin said. "We went six [fourth-quarter] possessions in a row without Chauncey Orr getting a touch. Some of that is [Whitmer defender] Franklin Lindsey, and some of that is just us not getting him a touch. And they went to the foul line down the stretch and made their shots.
"We didn't score late. That hurt us last year when we had to execute at key points in games. We won all of our games this year when we had leads late and were able to hold on. Tonight, we had to come from behind and fight it when possessions mattered, and we didn't do the things we needed to do down the stretch."
Contact Steve Junga at: email@example.com or 419-724-6461.
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