NAPPANEE — After 10 lead changes, three ties and zero timeouts called in the first three quarters, it seemed like the crowd in the Panther Pit Friday night were destined to see a close, competitive finish to the game between visiting Elkhart Memorial and host NorthWood.
Instead, the Crimson Chargers outscored the Panthers, 19-5, in the final eight minutes to leave Nappanee with a 55-40 victory.
Even Memorial coach Kyle Sears couldn’t explain how his team dominated the fourth quarter.
“I’m not real sure, to be honest,” Sears said. “We made some shots, which always helps. We moved the basketball really well. Defensively, we kind of focused on keeping them out of the paint as much as possible. Again, it wasn’t perfect, but it did the job in the fourth quarter.”
NorthWood committed nine turnovers in the fourth quarter and also went 0-for-3 from the free throw line.
“I thought we did not take care of the ball like we had traditionally taken care of the ball all season,” NorthWood coach Aaron Wolfe said. “It was uncharacteristic turnovers that didn’t allow us to set our defense. Give (Memorial) credit: I thought they forced turnovers tonight and they were problematic for us.”
Memorial sophomore Titus Rodgers played a big factor in the Panther turnovers, as he finished with six steals in the contest, four of which came in the final quarter of the game.
“He’s an energizer bunny,” Sears said of Rodgers. “He just goes. It’s nice to have an energy guy like that on the floor. He has a natural read of the basketball court, and he sees it coming. … He’s doing a great job. It’s fun to watch.”
The victory for Memorial (11-8) gives them a final record of 5-2 in Northern Lakes Conference play. They finished second behind Northridge (7-0).
“Considering it’s our last year in the league, too, we definitely wanted a good showing,” Sears said. “The guys battled every night. We lost a couple heartbreakers. They just kept battling, and that’s what you want to see. We want to be playing our best ball in two weeks come tournament time. So, we just want to keep working towards that, and I think we took another step toward that.”
Brackton Miller was the catalyst for the Charger offense in the first half, scoring 14 of his game-high 16 points in the first two quarters.
NorthWood kept the score within five, though, throughout the first half. The Panthers took their first lead at 13-12 on a layup from senior Jason Borkholder. The teams traded leads before Memorial pushed the lead to five, 22-17, with 2:33 remaining in the half.
The final 123 seconds belong to NorthWood, however, as the Panthers closed the half on a 7-0 run to take a 24-22 advantage at halftime. Sophomore Cooper Weins hit a shot with two seconds remaining in the half to give NorthWood the lead.
“We have a deeper rotation this year, and a lot of times we’re able to talk to our players as they’re coming off the floor,” Wolfe said. “And also, it’s been a team that’s played with good pace this year. Any time you see that pace, I think it favors how we want to play.”
The Panthers’ biggest lead reached four early in the third quarter. There were five lead changes in the period, though, including four straight to end the frame. Miller’s two free throws with 17.8 seconds left in the third to give the Chargers a 36-35 lead would be the 10th and final lead change in the game.
Along with Miller’s 16 points, sophomore Malachi Emmons had 11 points, freshman Damarion Anderson nine, junior D’Arjon Lewis eight, Rodgers seven and senior Brandon Brooks four.
NorthWood (13-6, 4-3 NLC) was led by senior Trent Edwards’ 10 points. Sophomore Jamarr Jackson had eight, junior Ben Vincent seven, Borkholder six, senior Josh Stratford and freshman Cade Brenner three each, Weins two and senior Brock Flickinger one.
It’s a quick turnaround for the Panthers as they host South Bend St. Joseph today. The JV tip-off time was moved to 2 p.m. due to the NorthWood girls basketball team potentially playing in the regional championship game at night. The boys varsity game is expected to start around 3:30 p.m.
“This is a great weekend for us to evaluate what we need to do moving forward, with the tournament quickly approaching, and seeing what we can learn,” Wolfe said.