For Whitmer (19-1), it was their first City basketball title since joining the league in 2003-04, and it was the last chance at a CL crown for both teams.
Whitmer and St. John’s, along with five other current league schools will begin play in the new Three Rivers Athletic Conference next school year.
Whitmer’s last league title came in 1998 when it played in the former Great Lakes League.
This one wasn’t easy for the Panthers, who had fallen to visiting St. John’s (18-2) by a 41-34 count 16 nights earlier.
Veteran Whitmer head coach Bruce Smith and his players had to watch with fingers crossed as the desperation 3-point heave from Titans senior Cheatham Norrils, taken from just inside half court, missed the mark at the buzzer.
“I would put a lot more stock into the fact that we beat an outstanding program, with an excellent coaching staff,” Smith said of the historical significance. “You get the most pride and satisfaction out of beating people you respect the most.
“A lot of people are envious of their success, but to be honest I marvel at it. You look at them and how good they’ve been for so many years. To share the stage with them this evening was very special.”
Ben Syroka, the Panthers’ steady senior point guard led the way with 18 points, including three 3-pointers and a 7-of-8 effort from the foul line. Syroka was on the losing end of last year’s City championship game here while playing for St. Francis de Sales, which fell 36-28 to Central Catholic. This time, Syroka was not to be denied, scoring 11 of Whitmer’s 23 fourth-quarter points. In the two CL playoff games, including Tuesday’s 44-38 win over Central, Syroka sank 18 of his 20 foul shots, including 14-of-16 in the fourth quarter to seal the Panther wins.
“I definitely wanted to win the last one,” Syroka said. “A lot of people say that this game doesn’t mean much because we’re going to play them in two more weeks [potentially in district final here]. But this one meant a lot to me.”
“I think we played with a lot more confidence this time. After that [Feb. 8] game we knew we could play with anybody around here.”
Standout sophomore Nigel Hayes had 12 points, senior Franklin Lindsey had 10, and 6-7 junior forward Chris Wormley contributed five points and a game-high nine rebounds.
“We buckled down on defense,” Hayes said. “In order to beat a great team you have to play great defense. In the fourth quarter, we didn’t let it slip away like we did our first meeting.”
“It was the intensity that the whole team had,” Wormley said. “All five of us on the court played with great intensity the whole time.”
With the game tied 36-36 after Norrils’ 12-footer with 4:40 remaining, Syroka put Whitmer ahead for good with his third 3-pointer of the game 30 seconds later.
The Titans got within 40-39 with 3:15 to play, but Whitmer refused to yield the lead.
If there was a defining moment in the game, it came with 2:21 left when Hayes blocked a shot by the Titans’ 6-8 sophomore standout Marc Loving near the 3-point arc. Hayes recovered the ball in stride, swooped in for a layup, drew a foul, and hit the free throw for a 43-39 lead.
“What that did is it gave us confidence,” Smith said. “At that point in time I thought our kids went from thinking that they could win to really believing they could win.”
The Panthers went up 47-41 on two Syroka foul shots with 47.9 seconds left, and 49-43 on two more from Lindsey with 32.4 seconds to go.
“This is what we’ve been working for the whole year,” Lindsey said. “This is our time. We proved we could get the job done. It was a whole team effort.”
Norrils’ 3-pointer with nine seconds to play pulled the Titans within 50-48.
“All the credit to Whitmer,” Heintschel said. “They defended us very well. It was very difficult to generate any offense. They make it very difficult to get to the paint and get something good, and when you do they challenge you. “Obviously we wanted to win the last [City title], but we had to some things better that we didn’t do and that’s the way it is. They wanted to win it too. It was an intense battle and my hat’s totally off to them. Great job.”
Whitmer shook off a recent shooting slump from the perimeter, hitting 5-of-7 3-pointers Tuesday versus Central, and 7-of-12 against St. John’s, which hit seven of its 13 3-point attempts last night.
The Panthers were 14-of-33 overall from the field, and 16-of-20 from the line (all after halftime). St. John’s was 17-of-38 from the field, 7-of-12 from the line, and edged Whitmer 23-22 in rebounding.
Norrils paced St. John’s with 14 points, and Loving and backup guard Tarvis Malone added nine points apiece in the Titans’ first loss to an Ohio team all season.
In a first half that featured short ebbs and flows for each team, St. John’s took an 18-17 lead to halftime.
During a 9-0 run, Malone netted back-to-back 3-pointers, and fellow guard sub Nick Felhaber sank another from beyond the arc to give St. John’s a 14-9 edge 5:39 before halftime. Whitmer closed the half with an 8-3 surge, including Lindsey’s 3-point to pull the Panthers within a point 1:22 before the break.
St. John’s, which qualified for all 21 playoffs since the CL adopted the four-team format in 1991, was playing in its 20th City championship game overall under 32nd-year coach Ed Heintschel. The Titans finished their City League basketball run with 12 championships, all under Heintschel.
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