NorthWood took a late lead, then fended off several Plymouth attempts to retake lead.
NAPPANEE — It’s a play Jonathan Wilkinson has run since middle school, but there was never as much on the line as there was on Friday, Dec. 20.
With his NorthWood team trailing by two, Wilkinson used a pick from classmate Will Stueve to get open and then drained a 3-point shot with 22 seconds left to give the Panthers their first lead of the night against Northern Lakes Conference rival Plymouth.
NorthWood then survived a 28-foot jumper by Plymouth freshman Nick Felke at the buzzer and beat the Pilgrims 56-55 in a great high school basketball game.
“I knew I was the first option on the play, but I felt confident because I knew the play so well,” Wilkinson said. “Will set a great pick for me and I was able to step up and hit it.’’
Wilkinson’s shot put the finishing touches on a NorthWood comeback that seemed highly improbable in the first quarter as Plymouth ran its offense to perfection and grabbed an early 14-2 lead over the unbeaten Panthers.
“I’m not sure I’ve taken a breath in the last 20 minutes,’’ Panther coach Aaron Wolfe said after the game. “But I’m really proud of the way our kids competed and really, really fought back after a rough start. A big part of that was our experience, as most of these kids have been in that position before and they could draw on some successes we’ve had. That allowed us to not panic and just play.”
The loss was a tough one for Plymouth coach Ryan Bales, who saw his team drop to 3-3 on the year, despite 27 points from senior Tom Felke — who was playing his first game of the season after serving a five-game suspension.
“We did everything we wanted to for 31 minutes, but we just didn’t execute down the stretch,’’ Bales said. “We kept the game at our pace and did a great job defensively for most of the game. But give NorthWood credit, they made the plays when it counted.’’
The Pilgrims looked to be in great shape with 5:07 to play after a steal and coast-to-coast layup by Nick Felke gave them a 49-47 lead.
But as they had done since the opening minutes of the game, the Panthers mounted another rally.
A 3-point shot by Zach Zurcher would cut the lead to four with 2:14 left. After a Plymouth free throw, Wilkinson scored an old-fashioned three-point play to make it a 52-50 game with 2:03 on the clock.
Matt Flynn then hit a pair from the line for Plymouth before Zurcher drilled another 3-pointer — one of four in the fourth quarter for the Panthers — to make it a one-point game.
A Tom Felke free throw at the 39-second mark made it 55-53, setting the stage for Wilkinson’s heroics.
But Wolfe still wasn’t allowed to breathe, as Plymouth had two more chances to win the game.
The first resulted in a traveling call, as Tom Felke tried to get to the basket in traffic.
Plymouth then fouled Kyle McCoy, who missed the front end of a one-and-one with 13 seconds to play. Without a timeout, the Pilgrims tried to get the ball inside to Tom Felke, but the ball was batted away towards halfcourt. Nick Felke picked it up, took on dribble and launched a final shot that hit the front of the rim and bounced away, giving NorthWood the victory.
“This is the third straight year that our game with Plymouth has gone down to the final possession,” Wolfe said. “I love the rivalry, but I also love the way Plymouth plays hard and their kids and coaches have always been very classy. I’m glad they’re on our schedule.”
On their way to taking a 19-10 lead at the end of the first quarter, Plymouth hit six of its eight shots from the field, including all three of its shots from beyond the arc.
But the key to the game may have been in the second quarter, when Wolfe kept his starters in the game against a young Plymouth bench and saw his team cut the lead to just three by halftime.
“Our mindset was to just keep fighting, just like we have all season,” Wilkinson said. “Even when we were down 14-2, I thought everyone kept their cool and just concentrated on getting back in the game.’’
Tom Felke’s 27 points came on 10-of-14 shooting from the field, as his quick first step helped the 5-foot-11 senior beat both quicker and bigger players to the hole all evening. Mack Mercer had 12 points for the Pilgrims, although the 6-9 Belmont University signee continues to play through both knee and elbow injuries.
“I think I tried five different players on Felke and I don’t think any of them was able to stop him,” Wolfe said. “I think he’ll be the most improved player we see all season.”
Wilkinson led the Panthers with 20 points, while Zurcher added 12.
NorthWood finished the game with nine 3-pointers, while Plymouth hit five shots from behind the arc in the first half, but went 0-for-4 in the final 16 minutes.
NorthWood 56, Plymouth 55
Plymouth — Tom Felke 10-14 6-9 27, Mack Mercer 3-8 4-4 10, Nick Bayley 0-0 0-0 0, Matt Flynn 0-2 3-4 3, Nick Felke 2-4 0-0 4, Jack Barron 1-1 0-0 3, Cam Eveland 0-0 0-0 0, Trent Briles 2-2 1-2 5, Josh Anders 0-0 0-0 0, Tyler England 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 18-31 (.581) 14-19 (.737) 55.
NorthWood — Braxton Linville 2-5 0-0 5, Zach Zurcher 5-9 0-1 12, Tanner Farmwald 1-1 0-0 3, Jonathan Wilkinson 8-17 1-1 20, Will Stueve 4-5 2-2 10, Kyle McCoy 2-3 0-1 6, Dakyrion 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 22-40 (.550) 3-5 (.600) 56.
Scoring By Quarters
Plymouth 19 13 11 12 — 55
NorthWood 10 19 8 19 — 56
3-point goals: Plymouth (5-10) — Mercer 2-3, Barron 1-1, T. Felke 1-2; NorthWood (9-17) — Wilkinson 3-7, Zucher 2-3, McCoy 2-3, Linville 1-3, Farmwald 1-1.
Rebounds: Plymouth (16) — Mercer 9; NorthWood (18) — Wilkinson 5.
Assists: Plymouth (7) — Mercer 3; NorthWood (11) — Linville 5.
Steals: Plymouth (4) — N. Felke 2; NorthWood (6) — Linville 3.
Turnovers: Plymouth 8, NorthWood 9.
Fouls: Plymouth 13, NorthWood 18. Fouled out — Linville.
Officials: Greg Yergler, Tim Miller, Terry Leek.
Records: NorthWood 5-0 (1-0 NLC), Plymouth 3-3 (0-1).
Next: Plymouth at Penn Thursday, Jan. 2; NorthWood vs. Tippecanoe Valley on Friday, Jan. 3, 6 p.m., at Rochester in NorthWood/Rochester Tournament semifinal.
JV: Plymouth 40, NorthWood 34. Top scorers: Plymouth — Reis Yoder 13; NorthWood — Vincent Miranda 14.