By Marc Tobias
ADA — For three quarters, Lima Central Catholic was able to dictate its tempo and cling to a 25-24 lead.
For those same three quarters, St. Henry was able to remain patient, and then in the fourth quarter the Redskins were able to out-execute the Thunderbirds to win the Division III district championship held at Ohio Northern University.
St. Henry outscored LCC 21-8 in the final quarter to pull away with a 45-33 victory that advances the Redskins to Bowling Green State University for a regional semifinal matchup with Belleville Clear Fork.
LCC had dictated the tempo roughly the first 24 minutes, by being extremely patient on offense.
That design was no more evident than at the end of the third quarter where the T-Birds held the ball for nearly the last 1:30 before Dan Fairburn drained a three-pointer to end the quarter which sent the T-Birds up a point heading into the fourth quarter.
“We knew the way it was going to be played and probably a key thing for our guys was to mentally maintain and not panic or get upset at the situation,” said St. Henry coach Joe Niekamp. “I thought they stayed focused and we defended and when things weren’t going our way, I thought the kids hung tough until we had our streak.”
That run Niekamp talked about came midway in the fourth quarter, and it was keyed by a couple of three-pointers.
Nate Stahl buried a trey with 4:16 remaining to push the Redskins lead to 35-29. Kolby Harruff was then able to cut the lead back to four points on the ensuing possession for LCC when he made a pair of free throws.
That’s when Ross Niekamp put a dagger in the T-Birds when he came right back with a three-pointer to put St. Henry back on top 38-31 with under two minutes to play.
“The pace of the game was exactly what we wanted, we were up one going into the fourth quarter and that’s exactly where we wanted to be,” said LCC coach Bob Seggerson. “I think the thing that happened in the fourth quarter wasn’t so much a change of pace, but they started shooting from the outside.
“When they made those two threes to push the lead out to eight in a game like that, it’s a killer,” Seggerson continued. “For two reasons, one, eight points is a lot to make up and, two, the points came from outside which changed the game.”
After Niekamp’s three-pointer Jeremy Schwieterman extended the Redskins’ lead with a driving layup down the middle of the paint, and then St. Henry made five free throws down the stretch to seal the win.
“They stepped up in the fourth quarter and made plays, that’s what great teams do and that’s what teams do that make tournament runs,” Seggerson said. “I think, arguably, St. Henry is the best team left in the tournament, I know people will say Versailles is, but I think arguably St. Henry right now based on their play in the last month is the best team. Certainly the most talented team left in the tournament.”
Despite LCC trying to slow the pace down, it was St. Henry out-executing the T-Birds.
The Redskins made 9-of-12 shots in the second half and hit 59 percent (16-of-27) of their field-goal attempts for the game.
St. Henry also had just seven turnovers on the night while winning the rebounding battle 22-15.
“I like the way these guys are playing together right now,” Niekamp said. “They’re kind of jelling, we’ve just been a little more solid and a little tighter. We had some stretches during the season where we played well, but we’ve been a little more consistent and defensively we’ve been really good.”
Steve Sutter led St. Henry with 10 points on 4-of-4 shooting from the field, and along with Kurt Huelsman, the two hurt LCC inside in the first half with their high-low post passes.
“That’s something that’s been in our offense all season, and we were able to get some points out of that tonight,” Sutter said.
Huelsman finished with nine points, six rebounds and three blocks. Niekamp and Schwieterman finished with seven points while Stahl and Post had six points. Stahl and Niekamp added four rebounds while Post added four assists.
Pat Stolly and Jarin Johnson led LCC with nine points.
Stolly, the T-Birds’ top scoring threat, was held to 4-of-12 shooting.
“We did feel like we had to make some threes in this basketball game,” Seggerson said. “We hit a couple but we didn’t hit the threes like we needed. The fourth quarter we got a couple real nice looks and if they had gone down it might have been a different game. But you can’t play it over.
“I think for us to beat St. Henry today we almost had to play a perfect game, a mistake-free perfect game. We were there, we took that game right into the fourth quarter,” Seggerson added.
LCC ends its season at 15-8 while St. Henry improves to 18-5.