It was time to say goodbye Friday night for two prominent figures in Whitmer’s basketball history, and the host Panthers made sure the farewell was a fond one for 22-year coach Bruce Smith, and for four-year star Nigel Hayes.
First, however, the Panthers had to survive a storm from ninth-ranked Central Catholic before taking a 66-57 Three Rivers Athletic Conference victory in overtime before a crowd of 1,800.
“We survived Hurricane DeShone tonight, no question,” Smith said of his last game at home before retiring.
In taking the win, Whitmer had to overcome a career-best 28-point effort from Central’s 6-foot-4 junior guard DeShone Kizer, who hit two 3-pointers in the final 80 seconds of regulation to send the game into overtime tied at 46.
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Hayes, who kissed the floor when it was over, went out in style with 29 points and 13 rebounds for the Panthers (16-5, 11-2). The win kept alive 11th-ranked Whitmer’s hopes of a TRAC title share.
The Panthers will need to win at Fremont Ross on Friday, and then hope the Irish (17-3, 9-3) can do them a favor by beating first-place St. John’s Jesuit (18-3, 12-1) that night at Central.
Smith’s home finale was memorable thanks in large part to Hayes, who tallied 14 of Whitmer’s 20 overtime points, including a 12-of-14 effort at the foul line in the extra period.
“It’s not about me,” Smith said. “We’ve been here 22 years. Teams come and go, but these kids in the locker room only get one chance to go through high school. I wanted it so bad for them, because those eight seniors have given everything they could possibly give over their four years.”
Hayes had his coach’s finale fixed in his mind.
“Hopefully we can get some help from Central to knock off St. John’s for us, but it feels great to get this last one at home for coach Smith,” Hayes said. “I love coach Smith. I’ve been playing for him for four years, and I’m, just glad we were able to get his last home victory. We wanted to send him off the right way.
“It means a lot to me too. I’ve been here for four years and had a lot of ups and downs. It feels great to beat a great Central Catholic team in my last game. It was a great atmosphere, we played hard, and we showed our toughness and our aggressiveness down the stretch.”
Also helping the Panthers was Central’s self-destruction after regulation, an unraveling that included two technical-foul calls on 6-5 senior center Keith Towbridge (seven points, 14 rebounds), just one second apart when the Irish trailed just 56-50.
The first technical came with 1:02 left in OT, when Towbridge hung on the rim on a dunk attempt after he was fouled while driving to the basket. Towbridge made one of his two free throws, then Hayes hit one of two technical foul shots and Whitmer kept the ball.
Panther junior Jon Ashe (seven points, five rebounds) was fouled immediately. Then, while Towbridge and Hayes were sorting out who would stand where in the lane for the free throws, Towbridge drew his second technical (and fifth foul) for refusing to take a spot as instructed by the officials.
Ashe made one of his two shots, Hayes hit both technical foul shots, Central fouled Hayes after the inbounds pass, and Hayes hit two more at the line with 1:00 remining for a commanding 62-51 lead.
“We made some shots to put it into overtime, and then all of a sudden we come unglued,” Central coach Jim Welling said. “We can’t sustain any continuity in our offense, and then when you can’t think on your feet, and turn the ball over…
“These kids have been in this system for three years. This is not rocket science we’re dealing with. This is motion basketball, and they just completely collapsed.”
Central led 15-9 after one quarter, took a 22-21 edge to halftime, and still clung to a 38-36 advantage after three quarters.
Down 40-38, Whitmer went on an 8-0 run on buckets from Hayes and Ashe, plus two more from Ricardo Smith (17 points), taking what seemed to be a comfortable 46-40 edge with 1:32 left in regulation.
But Kizer sandwiched his clutch 3-pointers around a missed front end of a bonus chance at the line from Smith. Neither team scored in the final 1:07 of the fourth quarter, and Kizer’s off-balance shot attempt under heavy pressure from Hayes missed the mark in the closing seconds to force the OT.
Whitmer was 23 of 44 (52 percent) from the field, and 15 of 24 at the line.
Central, which also got nine points from Nate Harris and eight from C.J. Bussey, was 22 of 56 (39 percent) from the field, eight of 13 at the line, and outrebounded the Panthers 36-24.
Contact Steve Junga at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or 419-724-6461 or on Twitter@JungaBlade.