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It took two quarters to finally get rolling, but once they did, the Whitmer Panthers found the spark necessary to bounce back from a tough loss 72 hours earlier.
The eighth-ranked Panthers used a crucial 17-5 third quarter to pull away from visiting Findlay and take a 52-36 victory Friday night in Three Rivers Athletic Conference boys basketball.
Nigel Hayes, Whitmer's 6-foot-7 junior standout, led the way, mixing three impressive dunks into his team-high 18 points. Ricardo Smith had 12 points for Whitmer, and LeRoy Alexander added 11.
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Hayes also grabbed eight rebounds for the Panthers (12-2, 7-2), who began the night in a virtual four-way tie for first place in the TRAC with Findlay (9-4, 5-3), Central Catholic, and St. John's.
It was St. John's that handed Whitmer a 58-50 road loss on Tuesday while Findlay was busy beating Central to create the logjam atop the TRAC standings.
"We were all hurt by that loss we had Tuesday night," Hayes said. "And, with Findlay beating Central, it was a four-way tie. So, all the games are even more important than they were before.
"We wanted to come out and establish our team dominance again, and try to play hard and aggressive. We came out with the victory."
The doldrums of Tuesday's defeat seemed to carry over to this game, at least through a first half that saw five lead changes and closed with Findlay down just 21-20. That was thanks primarily to a 12-point effort before the break from 6-11 senior center C.J. Gettys (20 points, eight rebounds).
But Whitmer apparently buried its woes in the locker room at halftime because the Panthers opened the pivotal third quarter with a decisive 15-3 surge and never looked back.
"It feels great," Whitmer coach Bruce Smith said of bouncing back. "We have the ultimate respect for Central because they came into our house and kicked our tail, and Findlay beat them twice.
"You look at Findlay and say, ‘Wow, heck of a team.' So, to beat them by 16 points in our gym was a big confidence boost for us."
Hayes ignited that run by driving in from the left wing for a dunk, and Alexander took it from there, scoring Whitmer's next nine points in a span of 3:43. When he finished his burst with a driving layup, the Panthers owned a 32-23 lead with 3:08 left in the third.
Ricardo Smith's steal and jumper just before the buzzer sent Whitmer to the final period up 38-25.
"Their guards are big and physical, and they just got into us and didn't allow us very many passes, and we couldn't get any shots off," Gettys said of the second half.
"It's tough. We go into the half looking like we have a chance, and we have some momentum in our favor maybe. Then we come out in the second half, and we're just dead. We had a couple key turnovers, and we couldn't do anything."
Whitmer would build its lead to as many as 19 points on three occasions in the fourth quarter, as the Trojans struggled to regain their offensive flow, committing 12 of their 21 turnovers after halftime.
"We turned the ball over too much," said Findlay coach Jim Rucki. "I would say 95 percent of it had to do with their pressure and their athleticism and strength.
"If we were better fundamentally and made better decisions, we wouldn't have some of those turnovers. We just had too many empty possessions, and they're good."
The Panthers were 19-of-48 (39 percent) from the field, 10-of-12 from the foul line, and committed just six turnovers in the game.
"I don't think we played as hard as we needed to in the first half on the perimeter," Smith said, "and that allowed Findlay to get the ball to C.J. in the sweet spot, exactly where he wanted it.
"In the second half, we did a better job of pressuring the ball on the perimeter, which consequently made it more difficult for Findlay to get him the ball."
Findlay was 14-of-33 (42 percent) from the field, 6-of-10 at the line, and outrebounded Whitmer 29-22. Michael Clark was the Trojans' second leading scorer with six points.
Contact Steve Junga at: email@example.com 419-724-6461, or on Twitter @JungaBlade.