Whitmer's LeRoy Alexander goes to the basket against Norwalk's Jake Fetherolf in a Division I regional semifinal at the University of Toledo's Savage Arena. Alexander had nine points and eight rebounds as the Panthers improved to 22-2.
Whitmer is one win away from reaching a Division I boys basketball state semifinal for the second time in five seasons, and advancing to Saturday's regional final had everything to do with its large and mobile defense.
Shooting just 39 percent for the field, 41 percent from the foul line, and having their top two offensive players each go scoreless through halftime ultimately mattered little to the fifth-ranked Panthers.
That's because they threw a roadblock up against Norwalk's previously unbeaten Truckers, and moved to 22-2 with a 40-32 regional semifinal victory Wednesday night at Savage Arena
"We're the ugliest offensive basketball team on the planet," Whitmer coach Bruce Smith quipped. "So, that's what we hand our hat on -- we defend. "We've got good size, good length. And our kids are intelligent so they use that size and length to their advantage. My assistant coaches did a phenomenal job getting our team prepared to play this group. It was a very difficult matchup, and we're really pleased."
Whitmer will play for a regional title at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the University of Akron against the winner of Thursday's regional semifinal between Medina (9-15) and Elyria (14-9).
The Panthers fell behind 6-1 in the early going before tightening up defensively, and using some patience, plus some unexpected scoring production from 6-foot-1 junior guard Ricardo Smith.
While Whitmer two top scorers on the season -- Nigel Hayes and LeRoy Alexander -- were busy going scoreless on a combined 0-ofor-8 shooting before the break, it was Smith who filled the void.
He scored on a put-back, plus three drives through the lane for layups in the opening quarter, which ended with Whitmer on top 11-8.
"They doubled won low and [Hayes] found everybody on the kickouts for 3s," Ricardo Smith said. "My teammates got me the ball and I knocked it down with confidence."
Smith then bombed in a pair of 3-pointers -- at 3:51 and 1:59 before halftime -- to provide all 14 of his points in the game, and keep an otherwise lackluster Panther offense ahead 22-20 at the break.
"Ricardo hit shots and we were able to exploit the fact that they were really doubling down hard inside," coach Smith said. "They were gambling that we couldn't beat them form the perimeter."
Coach Smith was less than pleased with the first-half offensive output, and felt fortunate heading to the break.
"We looked like a bunch of nit-wits running around in the first half," coach Smith said. "But they had 20 and we were ahead with a poor offensive showing. So, in that regard, I felt pretty good."
After halftime is when Whitmer's defense really took its toll on the Truckers (23-1).
Norwalk, down 27-24 after three quarters, hit just one field goal in its first eight second-half attempts.
"We couldn't utilize any picks tonight because they bumped us off the ball," Norwalk coach Steve Gray said. "That's what four Division I football players will do to you. Their strength just hurt us so much, offensively and defensively.
"What hurt us the most was our ability to run offense. We're really good at running seats, and tonight we weren't as proficient as we usually are."
But Trucker all-district player Jeff Thomas did make things interesting late.
Trailing Whitmer 35-26 with 2:46 remaining in the game after Panther guard Luke Hickey delivered his only points of the game on two free throws, Thomas (eight points) sandwiched a pair of 3-pointers around a missed front end of a bonus chance at the line by Alexander.
Thomas' second 3 got the Truckers back within 35-32 with 2:13 still left, and energized the Norwalk portion of the crowd, which had not seen its team lose all season.
But, after Alexander missed another front-end chance, Whitmer caught a momentum break when Norwalk's Jake Fetherolf also missed a front-ender with :140 to play.
Hayes, who had not scored through the game's first 30:59, closed things out with five points in the final 1:01.
He hit three of four free throws, then got a steal and swooped in for a dunk with 19 seconds left to ice things.
"I wasn't frustrated," Hayes said of drawing heavy double-team coverage down low throughout. "I knew their game plan was to not let me score. "That's fine with me. That's why it's a team game, and I've got teammates. I kicked the ball to our shooters, and they hit big shots. That's why we won the game."
Whitmer last trip to a state semifinal came in 2008, when the Panthers fell in the semifinals to eventual champion Newark. The school's other final-four advancement came in 1987.
The Panthers were 15-of-39 from the field, just 7-of-17 at the line, edged the Truckers 27-24 in rebounding, and committed just three turnovers in the game while forcing nine.
Alexander scored all five of Whitmer's points during a 5-4 third quarter, and finished with nine points and eight rebounds.
Jacob Cashen topped Norwalk with 10 points.
Contact Steve Junga at: firstname.lastname@example.org 419-724-6461, or on Twitter @JungaBlade.
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