By Marc Tobias
BOWLING GREEN — After surrendering an 18-point lead, St. Henry was able to rally the troops for one last codege and moved into the Division III regional finals with a 51-41 victory over Clear Fork on Thursday.
Despite arriving late to Bowling Green because of bus trouble, the Redskins didn’t have any problems getting off to a fast start last night.
When Kurt Huelsman hit a runner in the lane with just over three minutes left in the first quarter, it put the Redskins on top 9-2.
Ross Niekamp then hit one of his four three-pointers for a 10-point lead and thanks to a suffocating full-court press, St. Henry led 16-4 after a quarter of play.
Clear Fork was forced into eight first-quarter turnovers and made just 2-of-9 shots from the field in the opening quarter.
In the second quarter, the Redskins made it look as if the regional semifinal might be a laugher, and when Nate Stahl hit back-to-back three-pointers the Redskins led 28-10.
“Coming in, it’s kind of pick your poison with them,” said Clear Fork coach Brian Kiper. “Obviously our hope was to shut down the inside game first, and then they came out and lit it up. We tried to come out on them and they just stepped out further and shot them.”
Clear Fork began to fight back in the latter stages of the second quarter, and cut its deficit down to 12 points at halftime.
The Colts then went on to win the third quarter 13-3, and when Tad Davis hit a three-pointer with 7:25 to play in the fourth quarter, it gave the Colts their first lead of the game.
Davis’ three-pointer capped a 27-8 run that dated back to the late stages of the second quarter.
Clear Fork’s comeback could be attributed to a number of things as it shot the ball better in the second half and began to handle the Redskins pressure more effectively.
“It’s hard to play wall-to-wall pressure like that for a lot of minutes,” said St. Henry coach Joe Niekamp. “We just weren’t quite able to stay at that level, and give them a lot of credit, they did a better job of taking care of the basketball.”
St. Henry’s Ross Niekamp answered Davis’ trey with a three-pointer of his own to put the Redskins back on top, 39-37.
Adam Beveridge then hit a three to put the Colts back on top by a point at 40-39.
That was the Colts’ last lead, though, as St. Henry really started to pound the offensive glass.
Huelsman scored on an offensive putback and then Nate Stahl got two quick buckets on offensive rebounds to put St. Henry ahead, 45-40.
“These guys maintained their poise, they knew it was a big game and got back into a rhythm on offense,” Niekamp said.
Stahl scored another bucket on a layup with 2:35 left to put the Redskins in control with a seven-point lead.
“I think there was a fatigue factor, you give all that energy to get back in the game, and mentally and physically you maybe lose half a step and that’s enough,” Kiper said. “We looked at the stats at halftime and they have just as many turnovers as we did and we’re actually outrebounding them and you look at the scoreboard and your down 12 and that’s a hard pill to swallow.”
Stahl finished with a game-high 17 points while grabbing 11 rebounds.
“Nate had some serious rebounds on some key possessions and I thought Kurt did a good job taking some control in the paint,” Niekamp said.
Stahl finished by making 3-of-7 from three-point range while Niekamp hit 4-of-6 from behind the arc to finish with 15 points.
“He’s (Niekamp) not afraid to shoot and I’ll keep shooting it, there bound to go in some time,” Stahl said.
Huelsman, meanwhile, was a force inside on both ends of the floor. The St. Henry big man made 4-of-5 from the field to finish with nine points, but even more important were his seven blocks on defense.
“He’s got over a 100 (blocks) on the year, when he’s aggressive and assertive like that he can come from far away and change a lot of shots,” Niekamp said. “I thought that was crucial because he was able to neutralize a great player in (Connor) Gregg.”
Gregg led Clear Fork with 17 points, but it wasn’t easy as he made 7-of-20 field-goal attempts.
“I think that’s the most I’ve driven to the hole because I think that’s the most I’ve had to this year,” Gregg said in reference to Huelsman’s presence. “Definitely that’s the farthest away I’ve been from the basket in a game this year.”
Gregg was the only Clear Fork player with double-digit points, and the Colts center also grabbed 11 rebounds.
St. Henry now moves on to the regional finals Saturday at 6:30 p.m. against Cuyahoga Falls who knocked off Liberty-Benton 45-39. ——-
St. Henry ticket info: Reserved seats will be on sale to season ticket holders (maximum two tickets per person, one ticket per season ticket) Friday evening from 7-8 p.m. and from 8-8:30 p.m. to the general public. General admission tickets may be purchased any time on Friday at the school or Gels Market and Saturday morning at Gels Market until 1 p.m. Adult tickets are six dollars and student tickets are five dollars. All tickets at the door are six dollars.