On a night made for comebacks, Whiteland wasn’t about to be outdone.
In the end, though, it was defending Johnson County Tournament champion Center Grove punching its ticket to yet another title game, the Trojans holding on for a 51-47 victory Friday at Edinburgh.
Leading by 18 points after three periods, the Trojans held on for dear life as their bitter county rival closed to within three points with 1:03 remaining. Whiteland missed a potential game-tying 3-pointer, and the Trojans ended the suspense with 3-of-4 free-throw shooting inside the final 18.9 seconds.
“I thought we played very well for three quarters but couldn’t finish the deal. We wanted 32 minutes tonight, and we got 24,” Center Grove coach Cliff Hawkins said. “But we’re really proud to be in the championship game.”
Sophomore swingman Michael Benkert delivered 17 points to lead three Trojans in double-figures. Senior guard Brady Brown came through with 11, and junior swing Tyler Bryant added 10. Six-foot-four post Troy Vorhies finished with seven points and as many rebounds.
For the Warriors, junior sub John Hubler flirted with instant legend
status by burying 4 of his 6 3-pointers in a frenzied fourth quarter that saw Whiteland make a game of what had been a blowout.
Hubler’s triples came in a variety pack of sorts. There’s the one that bounced high off the rim and dropped through to cut it to 44-39, the one that dramatically spun around before falling that made it 46-42, and the high-arcing all-netter that had Edinburgh’s gym buzzing at 48-45.
The climb, however, proved too high.
“What tournament play does is test the character of your team. If you don’t fight for yourself, nobody will,” Warriors coach Matt Wadsworth said. “I was proud of how we fought, but when you look back we had too many turnovers to win the game. When you play a team like Center Grove you have to get a shot every possession.”
The victory places the Trojans (6-5) in tonight’s 7:30 championship game against Franklin (8-2), winners of eight straight. Whiteland (5-6) takes on the host Lancers in the 6 p.m. consolation matchup.
Senior Kyle Alford finished with 14 points for the Warriors, with center Dejan Davis producing eight points and a game-high nine boards.
Center Grove finished 19 of 42 (.452) from the floor and connected on only 7 of 14 free-throw tries. Whiteland warmed up considerably down the stretch but still made only 16 of 42 (.381) field-goal chances.
Neither team shot well from the field during the first half, Center Grove’s 11 of 25 (.440) considered downright balmy compared to the Warriors’ 5 of 19 (.263).
Whiteland held but one lead the entire ballgame at 5-4 early on. The Trojans then went on a 10-3 run thanks to Vorhies’ bucket, Benkert’s old-fashioned three-point play, a triple by Brown and a Benkert layup.
A 9-2 scoring burst to open the second period put the Trojans in command, 26-13. Whiteland scored three straight, but Benkert countered with a trey from the top of the key with just inside a minute left for a 13-point margin at the break, 29-16.
Overall, Whiteland scored just 10 points in the second and third periods combined but had 26 over the final eight minutes.