Northmor’s defense staked them to a strong early lead and the Knights were able to hold on Monday to top visiting Mount Gilead 60-51.
The win was a big one for the Knights, as it kept them on pace to earn at least a share of the Mid-Ohio Athletic Conference Blue Division title — their first championship in that league.
“We talked about this as championship week,” said Ruth. “Every game is a tournament game. If we’d lost tonight, we’d be a game back for our first title.”
Neither team could get much going in the first quarter until Zach Parrott connected for three points in the final minute to give Northmor a 9-6 lead. The Knights would then take that momentum into the second. After Mason Mollohan opened the quarter by drawing a foul and connecting on one of his free throws, the Knights got five straight points by Kyle Kegley and two free throws from Brock Pletcher to open up a 16-7 lead.
“I wasn’t very pleased with the way we came out of the gate,” said MG coach Tom Cooper. “We were real tentative to start, which was surprising.”
While the Indians tried to work out of that deficit in the first, Northmor’s Alijah Keen had different plans, scoring 10 points in the quarter, including eight straight for the Knights at one point. Thanks to that effort, the Knights led 29-18 at the break.
Ruth noted that one strength of his team is that he has a lot of players who all can step up when needed.
“We have nobody on paper who catches the eye on stats,” said the coach. “Alijah Keen, in the two games he played against Mount Gilead, probably had his best two for us. Demetrius Johnson did a fantastic job. It’s fun watching him and (Zack) Hosack go at it.”
Kegley hit a three-pointer to open the third quarter, putting the Knights up 32-18. After he scored four more points, Northmor was still up by 14 with 5:12 remaining in the period. However, the Indians would battle back. Tyler Bland sparked a 7-2 run by scoring all of his team’s points during that span.
Then, with the score 40-29 in favor of Northmor, the Indians finished the third on an 8-2 run, getting baskets from Mollohan, Austin Vanderkooi, Hosack and Bland to close within a 42-37 margin.
“(At halftime) I just told them they had to play aggressive and make good decisions,” said Cooper. “In the first half, we were not aggressive enough, but in the second half, we did what we do.”
Unfortunately for the Indians, that wouldn’t be enough to get them over the hump in the fourth quarter. They were able to get a basket and free throw by Vanderkooi to get within a 42-40 margin to open the quarter, but would not be able to tie the game or move in front.
Johnson responded with a basket and then, after Jason Bolha connected on one-of-two free throws, the Knights went on a 7-3 run with all their points coming from the charity stripe. Despite the Indians getting five points by Bolha in the final two minutes, Northmor was able to win by nine thanks to the efforts of Johnson, who scored six points in that span, and Tyler Kegley, who connected on three late-game free throws.
“These last six games, we’ve won all six and our offense hasn’t clicked,” said Ruth. “It’s been all defense.”
With the regular season winding down, the two teams have slightly different focuses. For the Indians, Cooper is working to get them ready to make a postseason run. The coach noted that his players need to do a bit better on the boards in order to have success in the playoffs.
“The key for us is rebounding,” he said. “When we don’t rebound, we don’t get enough stops and our offense isn’t as good in the half court.”
Meanwhile, Northmor is preparing for a huge game at Highland on Thursday. If they win, their worst-case scenario is tying for the Blue title with Cardington — something that Ruth would have no problems with.
“Everyone wants to win a championship by themselves, but if we beat Highland, if I had to share with someone, it’d be Cardington,” he said.
Of course, for that to potentially happen, the Knights have to top a Scot team that picked up a convincing 21-point win on Northmor’s court. Ruth is hoping some things that worked in Highland’s favor in that mid-January match-up don’t on Thursday.
“One thing we have going for us is that that game was a perfect storm for them,” he said. “They shot 77 percent from the field in that game, it was their first game with Kaleb Phillips and we didn’t have Kyle Kegley. They zoned us and he can help take teams out of that.”
In Monday’s game, Northmor got 15 points from Johnson, 13 from Keen and 12 from Pletcher. Mount Gilead finished with both Bolha and Bland scoring 13 and Mollohan finishing with 12.
Rob Hamilton can be reached at 419-946-3010, ext. 1807. Connect with him on Twitter at @SportsMCS