By MICHAEL BURWELL
COLUMBUS GROVE — Columbus Grove’s girls basketball team picked a good time to get off to its best start in a game this season.
The state-ranked Bulldogs blitzed Bluffton 27-4 in the first quarter, extended their lead to 45-6 at halftime and cruised to a 69-24 victory on Thursday in a winner-take-all matchup for the outright Northwest Conference title.
“In big games like this, I think it’s really important to start fast and then everything seems to get easier,” Columbus Grove coach Brian Schroeder said after the Bulldogs defended their league title. “Once somebody starts hitting shots, it’s kind of contagious and everything kind of snowballed from there.”
Columbus Grove, ranked No. 5 in the final Division III Associated Press poll, won its third NWC title (2002). The Bulldogs, whose lone loss so far this season came to Division II AP poll champion and unbeaten Ottawa-Glandorf (45-44 on Dec. 29), won their 14th straight game.
“I’m just happy for the girls,” Schroeder said. “I thought it was really cool that (the NWC title) came down to the last game “Both communities came out to support their teams, it was a great environment and we were lucky enough to come away with it.”
For the second straight year, Columbus Grove has a chance to win the outright Putnam County League title as well. The Bulldogs (6-0 PCL), who already clinched a share of the title, host Pandora-Gilboa (6-1 PCL) on Saturday. Ottoville also has one PCL loss.
Bluffton, which entered Thursday’s game having won 11 of its last 12 games, finished its regular season 16-6 overall and 7-1 in the conference.
The Pirates’ defensive game plan was to try to take away Paige Bellman (6-foot junior) in the paint by double teaming her and take away Jade Clement and Macy McCluer out on the perimeter.
Rylee Sybert made the Pirates pay.
Columbus Grove’s 5-8 sophomore guard scored all 11 of her points in the first quarter, including three 3-pointers. She dished out a pair of assists as well.
Sybert’s first 3-pointer gave the Bulldogs an 8-0 lead, and her assist to Grace Schroeder for a jumper in the paint extended the Bulldogs’ lead to 10-3.
“Me and Grace Schroeder really stepped it up after they took away Macy and Jade and Paige, and we were just happy to get our chance to try and do a good job,” Sybert said.
After Alivia Koenig’s free throw cut Bluffton’s deficit to 10-4 with 4:33 left, Columbus Grove closed the quarter on a 17-0 run. Sybert had eight points during the run, and six different Bulldogs players scored in the quarter.
McCluer’s steal and layup with 11 seconds left after Sybert’s 3-pointer just 12 seconds before gave the Bulldogs the 23-point lead.
“Bluffton switches defenses up a little bit and we knew that they’d probably come out in something that we hadn’t seen before,” Brian Schroeder said. “They left a couple girls open and Rylee Sybert just had herself a first quarter.”
The Bulldogs went 5 of 9 from beyond the arc in the first quarter and finished 10 of 20 for the game. Overall, they shot 26 of 46 (57 percent) from the floor.
Columbus Grove’s defense was just as effective as its offense. Bluffton had nine turnovers in the first quarter, 16 in the first half and 28 for the game.
The Pirates made just 1 of 13 field goals in the first half and 8 of 28 (29 percent) overall against Columbus Grove’s 2-3 zone defense.
“They just extended it so far and we’re not very deep, so it wore us out,” Bluffton coach Eric Garmatter said. “We couldn’t get it into the paint, we couldn’t get it inside to get some movement inside-out, but it’s something we can work on.
(The Bulldogs) are pretty good. I didn’t think they were as good as last year, but they are. They’re better than last year.”
Clement, a 5-6 senior who will play college basketball at Huntington University, finished with a game-high 14 points. Bellman totaled 10 points, 10 rebounds, five steals and three assists.
The Bulldogs held Bluffton to just four points in the third quarter en route to a 58-10 lead.
“I thought we did a nice job of covering the perimeter, contesting shots, finishing possessions and then getting out in transition,” Schroeder said.
Abbie Parkins led Bluffton with eight points, including two of the Pirates’ 3-pointers (3-19), and three rebounds.
Eleven players scored for Columbus Grove. McCluer had eight points and Lauren Schroeder added six points, four steals and three assists.
BLUFFTON (16-6, 7-1 NWC)
Parkins 2-2–8, Rumer 2-0–4, Schaadt 1-2–4, Prater 1-0–3, Koenig 1-1–3, Garmatter 1-0–2. TOTALS: 8-28 5-8–24.
COLUMBUS GROVE (20-1, 8-0 NWC)
Clement 5-2–14, Sybert 4-0–11, Bellman 5-0–10, M. McCluer 3-0–8, L. Schroeder 2-0–6, Birkemeier 2-0–5, Ellerbrock 2-0–5, Vorst 1-1–3, C. McCluer 0-3–3, Malsam 1-1–3, G. Schroeder 1-0–2. TOTALS: 26-46 7-14–69.
Bluffton 4 2 4 14 — 24
Columbus Grove 27 18 13 11 — 69
3-POINT GOALS: Bluffton 3-19 (Parkins 2, Prater 1); Columbus Grove 10-20 (Sybert 3, Clement, L. Schroeder & M. McCluer 2, Birkemeier 1).
REBOUNDS: Bluffton 20 (Parkins & Schaadt 3); Columbus Grove 28 (Bellman 10).
TURNOVERS: Bluffton 28, Columbus Grove 11.
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