By MICHAEL BURWELL
BLUFFTON — The logjam atop the Northwest Conference girls basketball standings became a little clearer Thursday.
Although four quarters and an overtime period weren’t enough for Columbus Grove, the two-time defending league champs took a big step toward retaining their title.
Columbus Grove was held scoreless over the final five minutes of the fourth quarter, but the Bulldogs hit key shots and forced several Bluffton turnovers in the extra sessions to outlast the Pirates 57-52 in double-overtime.
“We knew it would be tough coming into their place and with so much experience and talent returning. They hit a lot of big shots,” Columbus Grove coach Brian Schroeder said. “We were up seven in the fourth quarter and (the Pirates) just kept battling and battling and forced overtime.
“We hit the first three of the first overtime and I thought that’d be big. Normally, if you can score the first points of overtime, for whatever reason, a lot of times that means you’re probably going to win. But they came down and hit some big shots and forced double overtime. We were just lucky enough to hit the last shot I guess.”
Columbus Grove, the outright NWC champs the last two seasons, improved to 9-7 overall and 4-1 in the NWC. Bluffton, which started 4-0 in the NWC, dropped its second-straight conference game and fell to 11-5 overall.
Columbus Grove, Delphos Jefferson and Spencerville are each 4-1 in the NWC. The Bulldogs already beat Spencerville and will play at Delphos Jefferson on Feb. 1.
“The NWC’s kind of wide open this year. It’s kind of the wild, wild west I guess of the girls basketball,” Schroeder said. “You look at scores and you never know what you’re going to get … there’s not just one team that’s kind of up at the top.
“We don’t have like a Liberty-Benton or an Ottoville in our league, so I think there’s a lot of just really good teams. I think there was a four-way tie coming into tonight, so it just puts us in a good position but we still have three NWC games left.”
Senior guards Carlee McCluer and Lauren Schroeder both scored 17 points to lead Columbus Grove. McCluer scored 15 points after halftime after dealing with foul trouble in the first half, while Schroeder had seven points in the extra frames.
In a game filled with big shots, Columbus Grove’s Teyah Sautter might have made the biggest.
After Bluffton’s Katie Prater drained a long jumper to open the second overtime and give Bluffton a 50-48 lead, Schroeder found Sautter for a corner 3-pointer with 3:07 left to give the Bulldogs the lead right back.
They were Sautter’s first points of the game, and the Bulldogs never surrendered the lead.
Columbus Grove went 6 of 10 from the free-throw line in the final 2:02 while holding Bluffton to just two points on Alivia Koenig’s drive with 34 seconds left, which pulled the Pirates within 54-52.
The Pirates had two turnovers in the final minute.
“They forced a lot of turnovers, we forced some good things,” Bluffton coach Eric Garmatter said. “…I’m proud of them. There’s nothing I can say, you’re going to make mistakes in the game of basketball, it’s just bouncing back and trying to make the next play and most of the time, we were bouncing back and making the next play. They just made a few more plays down the stretch than what we did.”
Columbus Grove opened the fourth quarter with back-to-back 3-pointers from McCluer to take a 41-34 lead, its largest since a 12-5 advantage late in the first quarter.
“She’s a very talented individual,” Brian Schroeder said. “They came out face guarding her, and I think she was getting a little bit frustrated and that was carrying over to defense. She had a couple dumb fouls and just wasn’t able to get rolling in the first half.
“In the second half, it wasn’t anything X-and-O-wise we did; she’s just a very good athlete and a really good basketball player and she found a way to score for us.”
Bluffton, though, finished the frame on a 9-2 run to force overtime. Sophomore forward Libby Schaadt had six of her 10 points in the quarter, including the game-tying bucket with 1:18 left off a pass from Kayla White.
McCluer’s half-court shot bounced off the rim at the fourth-quarter buzzer, and Koenig’s contested 3-pointer in the final seconds of the first overtime was off the mark as well.
Schroeder’s 3-pointer off Rylee Sybert’s pass gave Columbus Grove a 46-43 lead in the first overtime, and her two free throws with 38 seconds left tied the game 48-48.
Bluffton junior Averey Rumer scored a game-high 20 points, including 16 in the middle two quarters, and grabbed seven rebounds to lead the Pirates. Koenig added 14 points, including four 3-pointers, and Schaadt scored 10.
Sybert added eight points and Angel Schneider had a game-high nine rebounds for the Bulldogs.
Bluffton had a 38-28 rebounding advantage, but had 20 turnovers compared to Columbus Grove’s 10.
COLUMBUS GROVE (9-7, 4-1 NWC)
McCluer 7-1–17, Schroeder 4-6–17, Sybert 3-2–8, Gladwell 2-2–7, Schneider 1-2–4, Sautter 1-1–4, Witteborg 0-0–0, Vorst 0-0–0. TOTALS: 18-50 14-22 — 57.
BLUFFTON (11-5, 4-2 NWC)
Rumer 6-6–20, Koenig 5-0–14, Schaadt 5-0–10, White 1-2–5, Prater 1-0–2, Eachus 0-1–1, B. Garmatter 0-0–0, L. Garmatter 0-0–0. TOTALS: 18-44 9-17 — 52.
Columbus Grove 12 10 13 8 5 9 — 57
Bluffton 6 14 14 9 5 4 — 52
3-Point GOALS: Columbus Grove 7-26 (Schroeder 3, McCluer 2, Gladwell & Sautter 1); Bluffton 7-18 (Koenig 4, Rumer 2, White 1).
rebounds: Columbus Grove 28 (Schneider 9); Bluffton 38 (Rumer 7).
turnovers: Columbus Grove 10, Bluffton 20.
Send an E-mail to Mike Burwell