By ROB HAMILTON
Hard-nosed defensive play and an ability to convert on free throws paved the way for the Northmor girls’ basketball team to claim a sectional championship at home against Bexley Thursday.
In their 33-28 win over the Lions, the Knights went the entire second half without hitting a single shot from the field, but thanks to their defense and ability to both get to the line and convert there, they still managed to have a double-digit lead with 90 seconds to play before their opponents outscored them 6-1 down the stretch to finish within five.
“We’ve really worked on our defense these last two weeks,” said head coach Brendon Gwirtz. “With free throws, we were probably about 16-of-20 until the end (when they missed 5-of-6 over those final 90 seconds), but we made enough to have a cushion, so the misses didn’t cost us.”
The primary reason the Knights had a cushion was thanks to a strong offensive showing in the second quarter. Northmor’s Allie Tupps kept the team with the Lions in the first period by scoring all nine of her team’s points as they held one-point advantage after eight minutes.
“She was our scorer,” said Gwirtz. “She’s been leading us on offense the last five or six games. Without her, I don’t know what it’d have been in the first quarter.”
The rest of the team got involved offensively in the second quarter. Taylor Shirley and Kyndall Williams opened the period with back-to-back scores. After Elise Torrance responded with a basket to bring the Lions within a 13-10 margin, Northmor got four free throws from Shelbie Wiseman to move in front by seven.
Torrance would score again for Bexley, but the Knights finished the period on a 7-0 run. Williams started things with a basket off a outback and Tupps added a bucket. Shirley then hit 3-of-4 foul shots to give Northmor a 24-12 lead at the intermission.
“We were just running our dribble-drive offense and being aggressive,” said Gwirtz of his team’s second-quarter performance. “And we came off picks to the basket.”
Northmor’s offense struggled in the third quarter, but their defense kept them in front by a comfortable margin. While they only got a pair of Chantel Cline free throws during those eight minutes, they held Bexley to one basket and four foul shots to still hold a 26-18 lead with eight minutes to play.
Neither team was able to add to their total in the fourth until Tupps hit two free throws at the 4:38 mark to bring the Knights back up to a double-digit lead. Bexley closed within a 29-22 margin with 2:39 to go, but two foul shots by Shirley and one more by Tupps got the score back up to a 10-point advantage with 1:38 to play.
That proved to be enough of a cushion for Northmor (14-9 on the season) to advance past the sectional rounds of tournament play and move on to the district semifinals. There, the Knights will have a very stern test in top-seeded Columbus Africentric, who dispatched county rival Mount Gilead in their first tournament battle.
While he knows his team would be considered the underdogs in the contest, Gwirtz is looking forward to the challenge.
“We just have to do as we do and play as hard as we possibly can and see what happens,” he said. “We could come out and play them close for the first quarter and they could get tight — that’s the beauty of this.”
For the moment, though, Gwirtz is happy to celebrate his team winning a sectional title, something that shows the amount of improvement the Lady Knights have made over their careers with the program.
“I just told them how proud of them I am,” he said. “These juniors and seniors were 1-20 as freshmen and sophomores. It’s been a lot of hard work and sticking to it.”
For the game, Tupps finished with 15 points to lead all scorers. Shirley added seven for the Knights.
That win came three days after Northmor topped Columbus Academy by a 46-26 margin in their opening game of the tournament.
The Knights led 11-6 after the opening period, but pulled away thanks to a nice second period where they outscored the Vikings 13-4 to move in front by a 24-10 margin.
Both teams scored 11 in the third quarter, but the Knights finished strongly, outscoring Academy 11-5 over the final eight minutes to finish with a 20-point win.
Kyndall Williams tallied 21 points and 17 rebounds to lead Northmor, while Tupps finished with 12.
Rob Hamilton may be reached at 419-946-3010, ext. 204.