After a slow start defensively, the Norwalk boys basketball team found its footing in Saturday’s Division II district championship game vs. Vermilion at the Mansfield Madison Middle School.
And when things got tight, the Truckers turned to their in-game closer to finish it off.
Norwalk never trailed after an emphatic Brandon Haraway slam dunk at the 5:41 mark of the second quarter. It then used the combination of team defense — which has carried it all season — and Haraway’s offensive prowess to finish off a 46-39 win over the Sailors.
With the win, Norwalk (23-3) — ranked No. 14 in the final Associated Press state poll — advanced to Thursday’s 6:15 p.m. regional semifinal vs. No. 2 Columbus South (25-1) at the Stroh Center on the campus of Bowling Green State University.
The Sailors connected on three 3-pointers in the first 4:35 of the game, giving them an 11-6 lead. SBC Bay Division Player of the Year Mason Montgomery made a baseline jumper at the 7:20 mark of the second quarter to give Vermilion a 13-9 lead.
Then it was lockdown time for the Truckers.
The Sailors were held to just one free throw at the 1:21 mark of the second quarter, all the way until the 5:47 mark of the third. Vermilion had no field goals for a stretch of 9:33 of game action.
“They came out strong. We knew they would make some shots, that’s a good team with a lot of seniors that were ready for this moment,” said Norwalk senior Austin Brown, one of the team’s top defenders. “But we just sit down and defend. We’ve been taught this since the first day of practice. I almost felt like throughout this game, we just wanted it more.”
The problem for the Truckers, however, is their lead was still only 18-16 despite shutting down the Sailors.
But not long later, Norwalk got its separation.
Leading 20-18, Haraway scored on a short jumper, then Garrett Chapin went up strong with an offensive rebound for two points and was fouled. He made the free throw to convert the three-point play.
Then, after a Vermilion turnover in the backcourt, Chapin got the ball again and scored to ignite the Norwalk crowd and give the Truckers a 27-18 lead at the 3:26 mark of the third.
Haraway then matched the Sailors basket for basket, scoring three straight times to answer Vermilion scores and give the Truckers a 33-24 lead entering the fourth quarter.
The standout then made two free throws to open the fourth at the 6:14 mark, extending the Norwalk lead to 35-24. The free throws also gave Haraway the fifth 500-point season in program history. He has 508 points this season entering Thursday’s game.
But Vermilion had one last run in it.
The Sailors’ Luke Pena made a free throw, but missed the second. Montgomery got the rebound, and drilled a corner 3 for a four-point swing to make it a 35-28 deficit with 5:53 left.
After a Norwalk turnover, Pena scored to cut the lead to five (35-30), and it appeared Haraway stemmed the tide with two free throws for a 37-30 lead with 4:32 left.
But the Sailors again forced a couple Norwalk misses and turnovers, with Reese Miller and Jonah Pfeil scoring back-to-back — and suddenly it was just a 37-34 Norwalk advantage with 2:16 left still to play.
But in perhaps the game’s biggest basket, junior Kyler Lacy got an offensive rebound and went up strong. He was fouled and converted the basket. Lacy then sank the foul shot, putting Norwalk up 40-34 with 1:51 left.
“I thought that was the turning point of the game,” Norwalk coach Steve Gray said. “It was starting to slip away from us a little bit. He was able to grab a big rebound, finish and make the free throw.
“After that, a sense of calm came over us and then Brandon finished it off,” he added.
Pena scored with 1:13 left to bring Vermilion within 40-36, and a Sterling Benko 3 with 58.6 seconds left after two Harawaway foul shots made it a 42-39 deficit.
But Vermilion drew no closer.
Haraway was fouled five seconds later and made them both, then after a missed shot and rebound, the Div. II Ashland University recruit was sent back to the line with 40.7 second left.
He made them both for a 46-39 lead, and Vermilion missed three shots in the closing seconds as time expired.
Haraway finished with 29 points on 9-of-16 shooting, including 10-of-12 at the free-throw line. He added seven rebounds and three steals. It was a stark contrast from Wednesday’s triple-overtime win over Ontario, when he was 3-of-14 shooting and 14-of-23 at the foul line.
“Short term memory is the key to it,” he said. “You have to forget about the last game. We’re on to this game. After the game was over Wednesday, it was done. We’ll celebrate this victory for a couple of days, then it’s on to the next one. It’s about short term memory and bouncing back.”
Also for the Truckers, Chapin had 10 points and 12 rebounds, while Lacy had the three points and seven big rebounds.
Montgomery had seven points and 11 rebounds, while Seth Hurd added eight points. The Sailors had no player in double-digits, and were 15 of 49 shooting from the floor.
After the Sailors made three of their first four 3s in the opening quarter, they were just 2-of-22 the rest of the game.
“This is probably the best defensive team I’ve ever coached,” Gray said of his team, which allows 46.7 points per game. “Their attention to detail, their ability to trust each other is just unbelievable. And today we did some things where they had to trust each other. And I’m just so proud of them.”
Brandon Haraway 9-10—29; Garrett Obringer 1-0—2; Garrett Chapin 4-2—10; Austin Brown 1-0—2; Kyler Lacy 1-1—3. TOTALS 16-13—46.
Mason Montgomery 3-0–7; Jonah Pfeil 3-0—7; Reese Miller 2-2—7; Luke Pena 2-1—5; Seth Hurd 3-1—8; Luke Kovach 1-0—2; Sterling Benko 1-0—3. TOTALS 15-4—39.
Vermilion 11 3 10 15 — 39
Norwalk 9 7 17 13 — 46
3-point FGs: (N) Haraway; (V) Montgomery, Pfeil, Miller, Hurd, Benko