By ROB HAMILTON
Highland controlled the first and third period against visiting Cardington on Friday and wound up with a 59-42 win in Blue Division action that kept them one game in front of Centerburg in the race for the title.
After falling behind by a 5-0 margin early in the game on a basket and three-pointer by Cardington’s Mitch Yake, the Scots held their opponents scoreless for the remain 6:38 of the period.
During that time, Highland scored 17 straight points to take a commanding lead. Jett Swetland scored six for the Scots, while Curtis Belcher tallied four and Byron Belcher added three. “They’re a tough match-up because they’re so guard-oriented, so we went zone,” said Scot coach Matt Bradley, who felt his team’s defense was the key to the win. “We’ve really sat down and guarded the last five or six games and that’s why we’ve won.”
On the other sideline, Cardington coach Rod Brown mourned his team’s lack of offensive execution.
“We never got going offensively at all,” he said. “We didn’t attack or hit shots, which allowed them to pack it in.”
If Brown’s team had a good quarter on offense, it was the second period. They opened that quarter with a Cole Hess three-pointer. Hess followed up that with a steal where he drew a foul on the subsequent shot attempt and made both free throws. After a Belcher basket put the Scots up 19-10, Yake scored four straight to get the Pirates within five.
Highland would go up 27-17 with three minutes to play in the half, but Cardington shut them down the rest of the way, getting three points from Yake and two from Tyler Dornon to get within a five-point margin by halftime at 27-22.
Unfortunately for the Pirates, the third quarter was more like the first, as the Scots pulled away to a commanding lead. Highland opened with back-to-back shots by Swetland and Byron Belcher, but Mason Richardson countered with a three-pointer to keep his team within a 31-25 margin. The Pirates would suffer another scoring drought, though. Over the next three minutes, Highland got a pair of free throws by both Swetland and Curtis Belcher, who also drained a basket to give the Scots a 37-25 lead. After a Dornon basket trimmed Highland’s lead to 10, the Scots got two free throws from Ryan Burt and a three from Curtis Belcher to go up by 15. Dornon and Byron Belcher traded baskets to end the period with Highland leading 44-29.
Brown noted that his team struggled to both maintain possession of the ball and keep out of foul trouble as the game went on, with both factors contributing to his team fading in the third.
“We just threw the ball away three times in five possessions with no one touching it,” he said. “And with us being in foul trouble, they’re a good shooting team and made their free throws.”
Garrett Rowe led off the fourth quarter with a basket for the Pirates, but Highland responded with four points by Burt and another shot by Curtis Belcher to increase their lead to a 50-31 margin. As the season has gone on, Bradley has enjoyed the additional scoring depth he’s gotten from his players.
“Where I’ve seen us improve the most is that I think we’ve gotten a lot of weapons as the year’s gone on,” he said. Dornon scored for the Pirates, but Highland ran off another run of six straight points, including a three-pointer by Swetland. While Cardington outscored Highland 9-3 over the final 3:34 of the game, the Scots were able to pick up the win.
Highland was able to maintain their one-game lead over Centerburg as the league season winds down. However, while the Scots have a Friday rematch with the Trojans, who topped them earlier in the year, Bradley is not ready to talk about that game yet.
“We have a lot of games in the next 14 days, but it is what it is,” he said. “A lot of teams have the same thing. We’re focusing on Northmor Wednesday night. They’re playing well. We could be playing Friday night for an outright title, but Northmor’s playing well and if we overlook them, we’ll get beat.”
Curtis Belcher led the Scots with 17 points, while Swetland added 15, Burt scored 13 and Byron Belcher added 10.
For the Pirates, Dornon got 13, Yake scored 12 and Hess finished with eight. However, Brown noted that, of those players, Yake and Hess did all their scoring in the first half, while all but two of Dornon’s points came in the second half.
“We didn’t get the balanced scoring throughout the game we usually get from those guys,” said the coach. “Highland outplayed us — they deserved to win.”
Rob Hamilton may be reached at 419-946-3010, ext. 204.