The Titans (15-1 overall, 9-0 City) entered the game ranked fifth in Tuesday's Division I state poll. The Panthers came in ranked ninth and led through much of the physical battle in their gym that was packed to the brim with enthusiastic fans.
But Whitmer fell for the first time this year (13-1, 7-1) despite leading after the first, second, and third quarters. The Titans took control with a 15-2 run over the end of the third quarter and into the early stages of the fourth quarter. They emerged with a 41-34 victory with the decisive spurt that spanned 4:54.
"It establishes the one seed for the City championship," St. John's coach Ed Heintschel said. "Other than that I'm not sure it accomplishes much. The fans love it because it's two ranked teams. It was highly competitive."
The Titans trailed 28-20 with 2:38 left in the third quarter. But sophomore Marc Loving hit a 15-footer from the right wing. He then made two free throws and Nick Felhaber scored to complete a 6-0 run to shrink the Panthers' lead to 28-26 after the third quarter.
The Titans then scored the first six points of the fourth quarter to seize a 32-28 lead. St. John's took its first lead since midway through the second on Loving's two free throws. Senior point guard Cheatham Norrils then hit two free throws to give the Titans' their biggest lead of the game, 37-32, with 4:01 left.
Loving scored 10 of his 12 points in the second half. Norrils tallied six of his team-high 14 in the fourth quarter. Both also had five rebounds.
"Cheatham led us really well," Heintschel said of his four-year starter. "He knows the offense and the strategies. He's stepped up to become a verbal leader. He wants to have big year. And Marcus asserted himself and did a great job attacking the basket. We have a lot of confidence in him. He hung in and made a big difference."
St. John's got to the line 18 times and made 16 free throws (89 percent). Whitmer went inside for most of the game but had just six foul shot attempts and made two (33 percent).
"They were able to get to the free throw line and we weren't," Whitmer coach Bruce Smith said. "I thought we gave it all we had. We'll use this as a springboard to get better."
Whitmer sophomore Nigel Hayes posted a double-double with 16 points and 10 rebounds. Franklin Lindsey had eight points, while Ben Syroka scored five.
The teams could meet again in the City League playoffs and/or in the D-I tournament. The City semifinals are Feb. 22 and the title game is Feb. 24 at Savage Arena.
The Titans' Jeff Copeland scored his only three points on a 3-pointer with 5:34 left in the game that completed a 17-4 run for a 35-30 lead.
Norrils said Heintschel told his players to stay together.
"We weren't exactly in the place we wanted to be. But we played through it," Norrils said
Overall, Whitmer shot 37 percent (15 of 41), including 2 of 11 from 3-point range. St. John's made 36 percent (12 of 33) of its shots and was 1 of 8 on 3-pointers. St. John's had an edge in rebounds (27-25) and forced more turnovers (10-7).
Tuesday night's game attracted a standing-room crowd of nearly 2,100 fans. "It was a great high school atmosphere," Smith said. "They brought excited people and we brought excited people. I'm glad our kids had the opportunity to experience this."
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