By MICHAEL BURWELL
COLUMBUS — Eight lead changes. Four ties. No lead bigger than six points.
Pandora-Gilboa’s Division IV state boys basketball semifinal against Marion Local on Thursday was nip-and-tuck the entire game.
Marion Local, however, made a couple more defensive stops down the stretch and 6-foot-6 junior forward Nathan Bruns put the Flyers on his back in the fourth quarter as they ended P-G’s season with a 56-54 win at Value City Arena.
“I think that’s one of the better games you’re going to see down here. That’s a heck of a game,” P-G coach Joe Braidic said after the Rockets’ historic season ended at 26-2. “They just came out on top.
“I thought they made a couple more plays, mostly rebounding the ball. They’re big, physical, strong, so the rebounds were huge through the course of that game. We’ve pretty much out-rebounded everybody we’ve played all year, and we got almost doubled up tonight (24-13). That was the difference in the game.”
Marion Local (24-4) advanced to its first championship game since its last state tournament appearance in 2004 when the Flyers finished runner-up. Marion Local will take on Willoughby Cornerstone Christian (21-7) at 10:45 a.m. Saturday at Value City Arena.
Cornerstone Christian, the 2016 Division IV state champ, beat Berlin Hiland 51-41 in Thursday’s first semifinal.
In a back-and-forth game in which the biggest lead in the second half was P-G’s 39-35 advantage midway through the third quarter, Marion Local made the plays and got key rebounds in the final three minutes.
Bruns, the quarterback of Marion Local’s Division VI state champion football team, scored 11 of his 15 points in the final frame after dealing with foul trouble in the first half. He snatched a game-high seven rebounds.
His three-point play off a putback when he snatched an offensive rebound off Tyler Mescher’s missed free throw gave the Flyers a 52-51 lead with 2:11 left.
“When it came to crunch time, No. 5 over here (Bruns) pretty much took over and got us through and was a big reason why we won the ballgame,” Marion Local coach Kurt Goettemoeller said.
It was the last lead change of the game.
Bruns had a steal on P-G’s next possession and later scored to put the Flyers up three with 1:03 left. After Jared Breece responded with a bucket for the Rockets to cut their deficit to one, P-G’s Eli Phillips came up with one of his six steals with less than 30 seconds left.
Cooper McCullough, a 5-11 senior guard for the Rockets who hit several clutch shots and free throws in the second half, drove down the lane but his shot in the paint bounced off the front of the rim with less than 10 seconds left.
Bruns snagged the defensive rebound.
“I told Coop after the game, it’s not the fact that you missed the shot; it’s the fact that you had the courage to take the shot,” Braidic said. “He could have bailed, and he went right up and took it with confidence. He just happened to miss it.
“I told him that’s 90 percent of life right there, stepping up and taking your chance. I’ll take that look every single time at the end of the game.”
Bruns made both ends of a 1-and-1 free-throw opportunity with 5.2 seconds left and, after a timeout, the Flyers fouled Breece with 1.3 seconds left before he could get a shot off.
Breece made the first free throw to cut the deficit to 56-54 and intentionally missed the second, but he was called for stepping across the line before the ball made contact with the rim.
After a Marion Local timeout, Matt Rethman fired the ensuing inbounds pass down the court to Bruns, who chased the ball down and ran out the final second.
“What a heck of a high school basketball game that was,” Goettemoeller said. “I think the fans that came here today got treated to a great game between two northwest Ohio programs. I think Pandora’s a whale of a basketball team and it took everything we had to come out on top today.”
Drew Johnson, one of nine seniors for a P-G team that won just three games in their freshman season, scored 12 of the Rockets’ 16 first quarter points in helping his team take a three-point lead. He had 19 in the first half, including 3 of 3 from well beyond the 3-point line, as the Rockets trailed 29-28 at the break.
He finished with 24 points on 9 of 13 shooting and had a team-high four rebounds. In his final two games, Johnson scored 52 points on 19 of 28 shooting, including 8 of 11 from 3-point range, and hit 6 of 7 free throws.
“I know that I’ve been a leader on this team for three or four years now, and I had to take it by the reins and just give the guys confidence offensively,” Johnson said.
“We thought we’d get our little 5-9 guard (Rethman) up in him,” Goettemoeller said. “We didn’t think he could hurt us as much and we thought we could help down when they did post him. He just made some tough shots early, he made some shots from distance.”
Breece scored nine of his 16 points in the first half and shot 7 of 11 from the floor. He had a drive for two with five seconds left in the first quarter and beat the second-quarter buzzer with a 3-pointer.
The Rockets shot 54 percent (19 of 35) overall, including 6 of 9 from 3-point range, and made 10 of 12 free throws.
For the Flyers, Mescher came up big in the first half.
The Flyers’ 6-2 senior forward had 12 of his 17 points in the opening half. Ten of those points came in the paint.
“Physically, they were so strong,” Braidic said. “That made a difference, especially the Mescher kid. He’s a load inside.”
The Flyers had a 38-22 advantage in points in the paint. Late in the third quarter and early in the fourth, Collin Everman and Rethman both had buckets in the paint off back-door screens. Bruns had two more off similar plays.
“Our backside help just kept creeping away from it and they got too many easy looks. It was a big problem,” Braidic said. “We kind of tightened it up a little bit, but they’re so strong that they rode us off the lane.”
Marion Local shot 56 percent (22 of 39) from the floor, including 2 of 5 from beyond the arc, and was 10 of 16 from the free-throw line. The Flyers also had advantages in points off turnovers (13-8), second-chance points (13-2), fast-break points (11-2) and bench points (11-0).
Tyler Prenger hit two 3-pointers in the first half and had eight points for Marion Local, while Mescher added six rebounds.
McCullough scored all nine of his points in the second half, including 4 of 4 from the free-throw line in the fourth quarter. His two free throws with 2:35 left gave the Rockets a 51-49 lead, their last of the game.
Phillips, despite not scoring, had three rebounds and both of his blocks in the fourth quarter to go with his six steals. The 6-3 senior forward had 14 steals in his final two games.
“Unbelievably, this is the first year he’s (Eli) ever played without getting hurt. He got hurt every single year he’s played but this year,” Braidic said of Phillips, who played in just 11 games in his first three years of high school. “He just has no fear. He’s just a tireless worker. He’s the heart of us inside. He just controls it in there and we wouldn’t be here without him.”
For Breece, who was the quarterback and a key part of the Rockets’ football run to their first regional final, his junior year has been one he won’t forget.
“It’s been a dream come true these last nine months,” Breece said. “We’ve put in a lot of effort into this stuff with lifting and shooting every day. After a week, we’ll probably get right back at it with both of those things and get ready for my senior year.
“I’ll be looking forward to it, but (this run) definitely will be something I’ll remember for the rest of my life and something I’m very proud of.”
MARION LOCAL (24-4)
Bruns 5-8 5-5 15, Rethman 2-2 0-0 4, Prenger 3-5 0-0 8, Mescher 7-14 3-6 17, Albers 0-0 1-2 1, Koenig 0-1 0-0 0, Everman 2-3 1-2 5, Buening 0-0 0-0 0, Tangeman 3-6 0-1 6, Eyink 0-0 0-0 0. TOTALS: 22-39 10-16–56.
Breece 7-11 1-3 16, McCullough 2-5 4-4 9, Johnson 9-13 3-3 24, Larcom 1-2 2-2 5, Phillips 0-3 0-0 0, Huffman 0-0 0-0 0, Wauters 0-0 0-0 0, Murphy 0-1 0-0 0. TOTALS: 19-35 10-12–54.
Marion Local 13 16 13 14 — 56
Pandora-Gilboa 16 12 13 13 — 54
3-Point GOALS: Marion Local 2-5 (Bruns 0-1, Prenger 2-4); Pandora-Gilboa 6-9 (Breece 1-1, McCullough 1-2, Johnson 3-3, Larcom 1-2, Phillips 0-1).
rebounds: Marion Local 24 (Bruns 7); Pandora-Gilboa 13 (Johnson 4).
ASSISTS: Marion Local 13 (Albers 4); Pandora-Gilboa 6.
STEALS: Marion Local 7 (Rethman & Tangeman 2); Pandora-Gilboa 8 (Phillips 6).
BLOCKS: Marion Local 1; Pandora-Gilboa 3 (Phillips 2)
TURNOVERS: Marion Local 10, Pandora-Gilboa 11.
TOTAL FOULS: Marion Local 14, Pandora-Gilboa 12
FOULED OUT: None.
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