By ANDY WOLF
COLUMBUS GROVE — Columbus Grove boys basketball coach Chris Sautter saw his team “lay it all out there” at the defensive end.
For that, he can understand leaving a few points out there, too, at the other end.
The unbeaten and state-ranked Bulldogs did score more than enough to hold off Bluffton 54-30 in front of a sold-out crowd in Northwest Conference play on Friday.
“They’re a real good basketball team,” Sautter said of Bluffton. “Mason Soper and Luke Denecker, between the two of them I think they were averaging 35-40 points per game (34.9).
“For us to keep the team at 30, after the way we guarded Tuesday night against Van Buren (77-66 win) where we didn’t guard anybody, that was refreshing to see.”
Columbus Grove, the No. 2 team in the Associated Press Division IV poll, improved to 15-0 overall, 5-0 in the NWC and moved into sole possession of first place after Lincolnview defeated Delphos Jefferson 59-40 on Friday.
Bluffton fell to 13-4, 4-2.
The 30 points were the fewest in any game for the Pirates by 11 points (Jan. 20 vs. Ottawa-Glandorf).
Columbus Grove kept Bluffton in single digits in all four quarters, alternating nine- and six-point frames.
“Defense is everything,” junior Gabe Clement said. “We didn’t play very good defense against Van Buren. Coach got on us pretty hard so the two practices we had before Bluffton we were just really keying on those two players (Soper/Denecker).”
Clement scored a team-high 13 points for a balanced Bulldogs attack. He also tallied four rebounds, three steals and a block.
Columbus Grove’s dynamic scoring tandem of Blake Reynolds (17.4 points per game) and Tayt Birnesser (16.6 ppg) had just 10 and 11 points, respectively. Both hit the boards hard, though, with Reynolds grabbing 13 rebounds and Birnesser 10.
Ethan Hopkins added 11 points.
“I would rather see four, five, six guys score in double figures and nobody score more than 15 and win,” Sautter said. “… We present some problems for people because we got guys that can score.”
Several point-blank shots rolled around the rim and out for Reynolds and Birnesser, who constantly attacked the paint.
Collectively, the Bulldogs made just 8 of 16 at the free throw line. However, they didn’t beat themselves, only committing three of their five turnovers before their junior varsity players finished the final minutes.
Meanwhile, the Pirates weren’t any better, shooting 27.9 percent overall (12 of 43) and 4 of 8 at the foul line.
While Columbus Grove gradually pulled away as the game drew longer, Bluffton was right there in the first quarter.
The teams exchanged four baskets apiece for seven lead changes in the first frame as the Pirates led 9-8 by the end of it.
The Bulldogs opened the second quarter on a 10-2 run, getting the last four points on coast-to-coast steals by Clement at the midway point.
“That’s the way we like to play,” Clement said. “We like to play good defense, play fast, transition points and do it all over again.”
Clement also knocked in an assisted 3-ball before the second-quarter buzzer to push his team ahead 24-15 at halftime.
“He gets better every time he plays,” Sautter said of Clement. “He starts a little slow, did the same thing last year but usually comes on strong and finishes well.”
The Bulldogs expanded their lead to 39-24 by the end of the third quarter as Hopkins scored six points and Clement had five more in the frame.
Bluffton pulled its varsity players with less than three minutes to go and only 27 points on the board.
“They were extremely quick on the ball,” Bluffton coach Todd Boblitt said of the Bulldogs. “They were physical with us. We didn’t match their physicality for the majority of the night.
“We wanted to be the more physical team. We were not. (They) just dominated us in about every phase of the game.”
Soper’s nine points, one steal and two blocks fronted the Pirates. Denecker added five points and eight rebounds.
BLUFFTON (13-4, 4-2 NWC)
Garmatter 2-0–5, Soper 3-3–9, Shutler 2-1–5, Piercefield 2-0–4, Denecker 2-0–5, Ault 1-0–2. TOTALS: 12-43 4-8 — 30.
COLUMBUS GROVE (15-0, 5-0 NWC)
Reynolds 3-4–10, Birnesser 4-3–11, Hopkins 5-1–11, Clement 6-0″”13, Schroeder 1-0–3, Halker 1-0–2, Smith 1-0″”2, Schneider 1-0–2. TOTALS: 22-49 8-16 — 54.
Bluffton 9 6 9 6 — 30
Col. Grove 8 16 15 15 — 54
3-Point GOALS: Bluffton 2-14 (Garmatter & Denecker); Columbus Grove 2-12 (Clement & Schroeder).
rebounds: Bluffton 28 (Denecker 8); Columbus Grove 38 (Reynolds 13, Birnesser 10).
turnovers: Bluffton 9; Columbus Grove 5.
junior varsity: Columbus Grove, 63-47.