LeRoy Alexander, who led Whitmer with 18 points, drives against Central Catholic's Dexter Johnson. The Panthers improved to 17-2.
The Blade/Andy Morrison
Outhustled and outplayed on their home court five weeks earlier by Central Catholic, the Whitmer Panthers were bound and determined to not let that happen again in Friday night's Three Rivers Athletic Conference basketball showdown.
The eighth-ranked Panthers (17-2, 11-2 TRAC) staged a successful role reversal and marched out with a crucial 50-36 victory over the Irish before a crowd of 2,200 at Central's Sullivan Center.
"I was very unhappy with the way we played toughness-wise in the first game," Whitmer coach Bruce Smith said of his team's 50-40 loss to Central on Jan. 13. "They came into our place and kicked our tail. Give them credit.
"We were bound and determined not to let that happen again. I thought we played a lot more intelligently this time."
Whitmer senior guard LeRoy Alexander led the scoring attack with 18 points, and 6-foot-7 junior standout forward Nigel Hayes supplied a dominant all-around game, adding 14 points and 11 rebounds.
"We wanted to come out and return the favor after Central came in and beat us on our home court," Hayes said. "It was really important to compete the whole game. When we watched the film we saw that Central out-toughed us, played harder than us, and wanted it more.
"We wanted to come out and play hard, fast, and aggressive."
Whitmer is tied with St. John's Jesuit (14-5, 11-2) atop the TRAC standings with one conference game remaining next Friday for each team. The Panthers will host Fremont Ross, while St. John's hosts Central (15-4, 10-3).
If there was one word to describe Whitmer's formula for success Friday night it was "compete," which the Panthers did for 32 minutes.
Defensively, Whitmer put the clamps on a Central offense that managed just 18 points through three quarters as the Irish struggled to find avenues to score.
Central was just 12-of-35 (34 percent) from the field and 9-of-17 at the line. The Irish were outrebounded 25-16.
Whitmer executed the role of patient aggressor, making the Irish work longer stretches on defense, then attacking.
The Panthers turned this game plan into a pivotal 24-of-29 showing from the free-throw line. This proved to be the difference in the game, as Whitmer was a modest 12-of-27 (44 percent) from the field.
Smith had issued a mid-week challenge to his team leaders (Hayes and Alexander) and said each player rose to the occasion.
"The message was we had to step up and take charge and lead the team to a victory," Alexander said. "We knew the game was going to be tough. Early in the season we were way slower than what we are now.
Whitmer led 9-4 after a physically- played first quarter and stretched the gap to 24-12 by halftime, with Hayes getting all eight of his points from the line and backup post player Storm Norton contributing five points.
The Panthers led 12-9 until two Alexander free throws kicked off a decisive 12-3 surge to close the half, a run capped by two Hayes foul shots 5.4 seconds before the break.
Needing to gain ground in the third quarter, Central instead managed only a 6-6 third-quarter stalemate with the Panthers, who never allowed Central to pull closer than seven points (32-25) over the final eight minutes.
Whitmer iced things by hitting 12 of their 13 foul shots in the fourth quarter.
"I don't think there's any question that Whitmer, right from the first four minutes of the game, just punched us right in the nose," Central coach Jim Welling said. "They went to their sagging man-to-man, and our kids just froze.
"The keys to the game were really simple: attack, attack, attack. We went one minute one time without even looking to get inside the 3-point line. You would've thought the game plan was to stall, and it wasn't.
"Credit their defense. We didn't even look to drive in the first quarter, and when we did we couldn't get into the gaps."
A testament to Central's failures on offense, and the lack of a go-to offensive punch on this night, no Irish player reached double figures in scoring.
Backup guard Gaylon Hughes led Central with nine points, and Cliff Bussey and Danielle Turner added eight apiece. Keith Towbridge, Central's top scorer (12.1 average) and rebounder (7.8) on the season, got in early foul trouble and managed just two points and two rebounds in the game.
Contact Steve Junga at: email@example.com 419-724-6461, or on Twitter @JungaBlade.