By Rick Conrad For the Pharos-Tribune
---- — NORTH MANCHESTER — Prior to the start of the season Jon Kitchel knew his team was lacking size and would have to rely on speed and strong leadership for a successful season.
The Kings have relied on that formula all season with good results finishing 17-2 heading into sectional play.
Going up against the Wabash Apaches in their opening game at the Class 2A Manchester Sectional Wednesday night, the Kings once again relied on the things that got them to the dance as they turned away the Apaches 74-60.
The No. 7-ranked Kings (18-2) face Manchester (16-5) in the 7:30 p.m. semifinal Friday.
The final score doesn’t reflect how close this game was as the Kings were repeatedly sent to the free-throw line late in the fourth quarter. Solid shooting from at the stripe helped Lewis Cass extend the lead they held over Wabash (9-12).
The Kings came out of the gate running and quickly let Wabash know they were going to dictate the pace of the game. Offensively, the Kings pushed the ball up the floor and on defense their fullcourt press gave the Apaches fits time and again.
A Ryan Bixler steal and a feed to a streaking Austin Keisling gave the Kings an early lead of 13-6 at the 2:51 mark of the first quarter. Moments later Evan Ohman was fouled on a 3-point attempt and hit 2 of 3 free throws making it 15-6 game. But the last 2:23 of the quarter the Apaches held Cass scoreless while dropping in six points to make it 15-12 after one quarter of play.
When play resumed in the second quarter Cass quickly went on the attack and within a minute went on a 5-0 run before the Apaches found the basket. The Lewis Cass guards started breaking down the Apaches defense and were able to penetrate deep into the lane for easy baskets or dumping the ball off for an open shot. In doing so it didn’t take the Kings long to extend their lead to double digits and by the end of the second it was the Kings in front 36-24.
The third quarter started off just fine for the Kings as both squads made short runs on each other with the Kings maintaining their lead. However, midway through the quarter the Kings started playing in a way that is uncharacteristic of their season. One of the keys to their season has been composure and midway through the quarter it went out the window. When it did the Apaches went on the warpath. They had cut the Cass lead to just four points and by the end of the quarter it stood a 49-44 kings lead heading into the final eight minutes.
“We’ve played them once already this year so we pretty much knew what they were going to do,” Cass senior Blake Hadley said. “We just wanted to go out and dictate the pace of the game and we did that for most of the game. We kind of fell apart and got away from that but late in the game we brought it back together and got the win.”
The quarter break was just what the Kings needed as Kitchel was able to settle his troops and once get them back to the game plan. In doing so the Kings regained control of the tempo and slowly put some distance between them and Wabash. Ryan Bixler and Owen Ohman hit big 3-point shots to help maintain the lead, and around the five minute mark Cass slowed its offense and began using the clock forcing the Apaches to eventually start fouling. With the Kings hitting their freebies and not letting up on the defense they came out on top 74-60 and advance to the second round of the tournament.
“A win’s a win but we forced a lot of shots,” Bixler said. “We gambled a lot and didn’t work our offense like we were supposed to. We’ve got to be able to hold our composure more than we did tonight.”
Leading the balanced Kings attack was Keisling with a game-high 17 points. Hadley and Bixler both tossed in 16 each while Ohman had 12 and brother Evan Ohman finished with 10.
Leading Wabash was Roger Davis with 17, Cody King with 11 and Christian Hall added 10.
“We did everything we needed to do in the first half,” Kitchel said. “Normally the third quarter has been a strong quarter for us. But Wabash, and give them credit, just came out and started taking it to us. We went through about a two-minute stretch there in the third quarter where we lost our composure and that’s something we haven’t done this year. The guys will learn from this.”