DAILY JOURNAL SPORTS CORRESPONDENT
Before senior Nic Welch’s last home game Friday, his teammates gave him a basket overflowing with presents and gift cards as a thank-you to the team’s lone graduate-to-be.
On the court, the 6-foot-4 center returned the favor in a most unusual way for a big man.
Welch assisted on 4 of 5 Grizzly Cubs’ baskets during a crucial two-minute span as Franklin built a 10-point lead and never looked back in a 63-48 win against Mid-State Conference rival Plainfield.
“It’s a great feeling,” said Welch, whose 12 points, five rebounds and rugged defensive presence helped counter a bigger Quaker team. “I’ve played Franklin basketball since third grade so it was cool to get a big win and have a big game on this night.”
His timing could not have been better.
After Plainfield cut the lead to 27-23 to start the third period, Welch found juniors Cameron Smith, Bryce Wentzell and Andrew Hartkorn on assists out of the post to push the lead to 10.
Plainfield would get no closer than 4 the rest of the way.
“I would always rather dish a ball off to a teammate than force a bad shot,” said Welch, who was 4 of 5 from the field. “I got the ball and just looked for the open man.”
Most often that was 6-3 forward Hartkorn, who led the Cubs with 19 points of 7 of 9 shooting.
“Andrew just seemed to be in the right place at the right time,” Welch said. “We’ve been playing together for three years now and we just feel it.”
The pair also combined to lead a surprising 21-15 advantage on the boards.
“Nic’s really playing at a high level,” coach Brad Dickey said. “He’s improved all year, and I’m really happy for him here on senior night. He really had a good balanced game.”
Smith and Wentzell added 11 and 8 points respectively. Franklin shot 56 percent from the field, 22 of 39, and added 16 of 20 free throws to seal the win.
“It was just a matter of balanced play,” said Dickey, who was especially pleased with court spacing and positioning. “The ball moved inside and out.”
With the win and Whiteland’s loss to Martinsville, the Cubs (9-12) claim a fourth-place tie with the Warriors in the Mid-State Conference at 3-3.
Plainfield did not fall easily.
Hartkorn gave the Cubs a second-quarter boost. Trailing 17-16, the junior battled inside for two tough baskets to put Franklin up.
The Cubs finished the half on another 6-2 mini-spurt, with Welch hitting a turnaround in the lane before finding Hartkorn with a nifty baseline feed.
From there, Franklin worked the clock to perfection as Wentzell spotted fellow junior guard Cameron Rigley for a floater in the lane as the halftime buzzer, making to 27-21 Cubs.
Key to the second quarter run was shutting down the Quakers’ smooth 6-5 sophomore forward Nathan Mills, who scored 8 points in the first period as the visitors took a 4-point lead, but was held to only 8 more the rest of the way.
“We just pushed up a little closer on him,” Dickey said.
The night, though, belonged to senior Welch, who fittingly caught his last home rebound on his rump after being knocked to the floor. A short time later, he left to a rousing ovation from the home crowd appreciative of the effort.
“He’s been fabulous,” Dickey said of his lone senior. “I wish he could he could do it two or three more years for us. He brings it every day. He’s a presence in practice. I could not be any happier with Nic being here and with his performance tonight.”
Oh, and what about that basket delivered during pregame ceremonies on a night honoring dozens of Franklin seniors participating in extracurricular activities?
“It was a bunch of gift cards and candy,” said Welch, a gleam in his eye. “There will be a lot of eating going on.”
The Cubs conclude the regular season Tuesday at Perry Meridian.