NAPPANEE — NorthWood held the lead for all of 22 seconds, but the Panthers picked the right time — the final 22 seconds of the game — to take the upper hand.
It was a 3-pointer from the top of the key by senior Jonathan Wilkinson that finally allowed the Panthers to prevail in a 56-55 come-from-behind win over the Plymouth Pilgrims in a wild NLC high school boys basketball opener Friday night in the Panther Pit.
“That is a play we have been running since sixth or seventh grade,” Wilkinson said. “I was the first option on the play. (Senior) Will Stueve set a great screen and I hit the shot.
“The NLC is like the SEC in football. You can lose at any point.”
Wilkinson’s shot capped a comeback by the Panthers that saw them rally from a 14-2 deficit at 2:24 of the first period.
“This is what the NLC is all about,” NorthWood coach Aaron Wolfe said. “This is the third year in a row our game with Plymouth has been decided in the final possession. They beat us three years ago and we won last year at Plymouth in overtime. People thought I was sandbagging when I was talking about the NLC, but I expect six more games like this.”
Plymouth coach Ryan Bales said. “We played a tremendous game. We controlled the tempo and did just about everything we wanted to do for most of the game. We executed most of the game the way we wanted to. It just came down to making a couple of defensive stops at the end of the game that we didn’t make. We didn’t make plays at the end when we needed to.”
NorthWood trimmed the deficit to 32-29 at halftime. Plymouth was 10-of-14 shooting in the opening half. NorthWood drilled 8-of-10 shots in the second quarter after making 4-of-12 in the first period.
“We hit some shots in the second that if we didn’t the game could have gotten out of hand,” Wolfe said.
Plymouth still led 43-37 entering the fourth period and the Pilgrims were still up 52-47 with 2:08 remaining.
The Pilgrims missed the second of two free throws at 2:08. Wilkinson grabbed the rebound and drove the length of the floor for a layin at 2:03. He was fouled on the play and when he canned the freebie it was a 52-50 score.
Plymouth got two free throws from senior Matt Flynn to put the lead back to four points (54-50) at 1:44. Wilkinson had the ball and was driving the baseline when he flipped the ball out to the top of the key and senior Zach Zurcher swished a trey to pull the Panthers back to within one point at 1:30. The Pilgrims once again missed the second of two freebies and Stueve grabbed the rebound at :39. The Panthers worked the ball around for Wilkinson’s game-winner.
“Our mind set the whole game was to just keep fighting,” Wilkinson said. “Even when we were down 14-2 we knew we could get back into the game.”
“You have to give credit to our kids for having the resiliency to stay focused and keep making plays,” Wolfe said. “The kids just kept thinking about the next play. A lot of that has to do with experience. Our kids have seen these type of situations before so they knew what to do.”
Wilkinson finished with 20 points to lead the Panthers. Zurcher chipped in with 12, Stueve 10, senior Kyle McCoy six, sophomore Braxton Linville five and senior Tanner Farmwald three.
Senior Tom Felke poured in a career-high 27 points for the Pilgrims. He was 10-of-14 shooting with many of his baskets coming on drives to the basket.
“Felke might be one of the most improved players we have seen so far this season,” Wolfe said. “He has an ability to get to the basket. We used five different players on him with much the same results.”
Bales said, “Some of that is Tom (Felke). He is good at getting to the basket. We spread NorthWood out and told our players to attack the basket whenever they could.”
Mack Mercer, Plymouth’s 6-9 senior that is committed to Bellmont University, scored 12 points and grabbed nine rebounds.