Those who had been waiting four years for a memorable duel between the marquee basketball players from fourth-ranked Whitmer and sixth-ranked St. John’s Jesuit, finally got that treat Tuesday in a Three Rivers Athletic Conference showdown at Whitmer.
Whitmer’s Nigel Hayes (27 points) and St. John’s Marc Loving (19 points) put on a show worthy of the skills that earned them Big Ten scholarships.
The visiting Titans (12-3, 7-1) survived Hayes’ superb fourth-quarter scoring surge to escape with a 52-51 victory.
Only when the final 3-point shot from the 6-foot-7, Wisconsin-bound Hayes rimmed out, and the two teams battled for the loose ball in the lane as time expired, could the Ohio State-bound Loving and his teammates breathe a sigh of relief and claim sole possession of first place in the TRAC.
“You saw two Big Ten players playing like Big Ten players,” said Titans coach Ed Heintschel, who picke d up his 600th career win Friday against Central Catholic. “We’re blessed in our area right now with these two guys, plus Mark Donnal, Jackson Lamb, Jordan Lauf, Vitto Brown, Ricardo Smith, Austin Gardner, and the guys at Rogers.
“This is going to be looked at as a golden era of Toledo basketball. One of the best ever.”
Hayes, who hit 10 of his 13 second-half shots from the field, scored all 15 of Whitmer’s points in the fourth quarter, part of his 23 after halftime.
Hayes did virtually everything he could to lift Whitmer to victory.
“Everything but hit a shot,” he said with a smile. “Actually, to the naked eye, it looks like a disappointing game for us.
“But, as a team, we reflect on this game and consider how we played against them this second time compared to the first [60-37 loss at St. John’s]. It was an incredibly different game this time, for us and them.”
For his part, the 6-8 Loving secured an individual milestone.
When he sank a 3-pointer with 1:05 left in the third quarter to put the Titans ahead 42-35, Loving surpassed B.J. Raymond (1,466 points, 2001-05) as St. John’s career scoring leader. Loving now has 1,471 points.
“It wasn’t too big of a deal for me coming into the game,” Loving said. “I wasn’t really thinking about that. I was definitely thinking about getting this victory, and it feels good to edge them out by one point.
“It was a tough fourth-quarter and Nigel came through with some pretty tough contested shots, but we played hard and came out with the victory,” he said.
Beyond the Hayes-Loving duel, perhaps the difference was St. John’s senior point guard Austin Gardner. He tallied six of his 15 points in the final six minutes while Hayes was rallying Whitmer.
“He’s a heck of a player,” Whitmer coach Bruce Smith said of Gardner. “He didn’t just hurt us late, he hurt us in the beginning, the middle and at the end.”
Gardner’s runner from the right side of the lane with 3:38 remaining gave the Titans a 52-46 lead.
St. John’s led 16-11 after one quarter, and took a 25-22 edge to the break.
When St. John’s 6-7 junior forward Parker Ernsthausen scored on a put-back just before the third-quarter buzzer, the Titans took a 44-36 lead to the final period.
Hayes’ 3-pointer pulled the Panthers within 52-49 with 3:25 to play, and his driving layup made it 52-51 with 1:10 left.
“We did everything we could,” Hayes said. “We had a few bad plays here and there, but you can’t play a perfect game. We came up one shot short.
“The first three quarters I was catching the ball in the post because I could do more damage down there.
“In the fourth quarter, some things started opening up for me, and my teammates found me. I give credit to my team,” Hayes said.
Hayes made one more sterling play, this time on defense, blocking a layup attempt by St. John’s Tyler Thompson, and secured the rebound with 35 seconds left to set up Whitmer’s final shot.
The Panthers worked the ball to find Hayes out top, but his 3-point try missed the mark.
“Nigel was really terrific down the stretch with his offense,” Heintschel said, “and his block at the end. We hung in there and barely survived.”
Whitmer (11-3, 6-2) was 21 of 40 from the field, six of nine at the line, and committed just three turnovers. Chris Parker added seven points, and Jon Ashe eight rebounds of the Panthers.
St. John’s was 22 of 47 from the field and outrebounded Whitmer 24-20. Anthony Glover added nine points for the Titans, who had just five turnovers.
Contact Steve Junga at: email@example.com, or 419-724-6461 or on Twitter@JungaBlade.