By ROB HAMILTON
With their 74-63 win over Northmor last Wednesday, the Highland Scots kept their quest for sole possession of the Blue Division title in good shape, but it took a fourth-quarter rally for that to happen.
The Scots controlled play in the first half, leading 36-23 at the intermission, but the Knights made things very interesting in the third quarter. James and Daniel Donner took over the game’s offense and Northmor battled their way back into the lead.
James Donner scored the first basket of the period, but the Scots recovered with back-to-back scores by Byron Belcher and Jett Swetland to go up by 15.
After James Donner and Swetland matched three-pointers, the Knights got five straight by Daniel Donner before Nathan Hilborn drained a three of his own to give Highland a 46-33 lead with 5:02 remaining in the period.
However, the rest of the quarter would be all Northmor, as the Knights went on a 16-2 run. Both Donners hit two three-pointers during that span with the second by Daniel giving his team a 49-48 lead entering the fourth quarter.
“They’re outstanding,” said Highland coach Matt Bradley of the Donners. “We talked going into the game that we have to know where #13 and #20 are. I’m not sure we didn’t have our hands up on a few of their shots and they still made them.”
Highland was able to keep their composure, though. The Scots opened the fourth quarter with back-to-back three-pointers by Curtis Belcher and Hilborn to regain the lead at 54-49.
“What hurt us was at the start of the fourth, they scored six in 30 seconds and forced us to call time out,” said Northmor coach Zach Ruth. Kyle Johnson responded with a basket for the Knights, but Swetland hit two free throws and Ryan Burt scored from the field to give the Scots a 58-51 lead. Thanks to James Donner’s accuracy from three-point range, the Knights clawed back within four points with four minutes to play, but Highland’s defense wound up clinching the game for the Scots.
After Kyle Minyo hit two free throws to make the score 63-57, the Scots scored three straight baskets off steals, as Burt, Curtis Belcher and Minyo all put the ball through the hoop to make the score 69-57 with two minutes to play.
“We challenged them to sit and guard for five minutes,” said Bradley of what he told his team during a timeout right before that run. “I’m really proud of how they responded. That fourth quarters showed the maturity of a lot of veteran guys. It’s game 18 of the season and there was no panic because we knew we had eight minutes left.”
Northmor’s Ruth was pleased with the way his team played in the second half after the Scots jumped out to a commanding lead over the opening two quarters.
“We fought back tonight,” he said. “We could have gotten down 20 or 30. Our goal tonight was to beat Highland and then Highland and Centerburg would be playing for the outright league title.”
After the score was tied at 3-3 early, the Scots got four points by Curtis Belcher to spark a 10-0 run that gave Highland a commanding lead. Northmor used a basket by Daniel Donner and a three-pointer by James Donner to get within five, but Burt scored five straight for the Scots to give them a 10-point lead again.
After closing to within an 18-12 lead at the end of the first, Northmor watched Highland gradually build up their lead back to double digits in the second quarter. Swetland scored five points in that period for the Scots, while six other players also contributed points.
“All year, we’ve had no unselfishness,” said Bradley. “They’re team-first kind of kids. We had five in double figures tonight, which is outstanding.”
Swetland led the team with 17 points, while both Burt and Curtis Belcher scored 13. Hilborn added 11 and Byron Belcher finished with 10. Ruth also noted that Swetland helped the Scots on the boards in the contest.
“Jett is a force,” he said. “He probably plays with more desire than anyone we play.”
For the Knights, James Donner scored 29 points, while Daniel Donner added 18. The two combined for 11 three-pointers with James connecting on seven of those.
After clinching a share of the Blue title (which they would win outright by topping Centerburg Friday), Bradley was pleased with the way the team has played for him as a first-year coach with the program, citing the efforts of seniors Burt, Curtis Belcher and Minyo.
“I’m very thankful as a coach for how unselfish they’ve been,” he said. “The mindset of those three has rubbed off on the rest of the team.”
Rob Hamilton may be reached at 419-946-3010, ext. 204.