By Beau Wicker Pharos-Tribune
---- — NORTH MANCHESTER — The Lewis Cass Kings are back on top in sectional play.
The seventh-ranked Kings took their opponents’ best shots but still came out on top.
The Kings captured their first title in seven years with a 69-53 win over Oak Hill Saturday night at the Class 2A Manchester Sectional.
It was the Kings’ ninth sectional title and first since they went back-to-back in 2006 and 2007.
For four-year starter Austin Keisling the championship was especially sweet.
“It’s been awhile. We’ve struggled. We’ve had our downs since 2007 but we brought it back. We brought it back to Cass,” he said. “So we’re going to put that up on our sectional list and hopefully put it on our regional list.”
The Kings (20-2) face No. 3 Wapahani (22-1) in the noon semifinal next Saturday at the Lapel Regional. Fountain Central (15-7) will play Tipton (14-8) in the earlier semifinal.
The Kings came out of the gates on fire, hitting 5 of 7 3-pointers in the first quarter to jump out to a 21-10 lead after one.
Ryan Bixler hit two 3-pointers in the opening frame and Keisling, Owen Ohman and Blake Hadley added one apiece to shoot Oak Hill (11-12) out of its 2-3 zone early.
The Kings cooled off a bit in the second quarter and the Golden Eagles started taking better care of the ball to get themselves back in the game. But Bixler ended the half with a steal and layup and then another trifecta to give the Kings a 37-26 lead at the half.
Bixler finished with a game-high 27 points and coach Jon Kitchel said it couldn’t have come at a better time.
“We talked yesterday about Bixler having a bad game and I knew he wouldn’t have two back to back, and he was a man tonight,” Kitchel said. “He not only knocked the shots down, he was really good on defense. We had him guarding their best player [Gerritt Taylor].”
The Kings maintained a double-digit lead through most of the third quarter and led 51-41 entering the fourth.
The Golden Eagles chipped away in the final quarter and got to within 53-47 with 5:57 remaining after two free throws by Jon Mauk.
But Keisling and Bixler hit four straight free throws in the one-and-bonus to push the lead back up to 10. Oak Hill later got back to within six with 3:03 left but again Keisling and Bixler hit their free throws down the stretch and the Kings led by as much as 18 points late.
The Kings were 14 of 15 from the line in the final 5:50 and 20 of 24 for the game.
When the Kings have the lead late they go to their weave. And with three strong ballhanders — Keisling, Bixler and Blake Hadley — they weave a deadly web for their opponents.
“They just kept battling back. If we wouldn’t have went to the weave, this would have been a close one clear to the end,” Kitchel said. “Our offense kind of broke down at the end and they were getting to the basket.
“When we get a lead and we get down to the weave at the end, we’re a good enough free-throw shooting team that we can finish it.”
Bixler scored 27 points and Keisling had 24 to lead the Kings. They were both 3 of 4 from 3-point range as Cass was 9 of 18 as a team.
“We attacked hard and kicked and we made some shots in the first half and it turned out good,” Bixler said. “My teammates made some good passes. All the credit goes to them.”
Ohman added six points and added a steal in the final three minutes when the game was still in doubt. His younger brother Evan Ohman added a big blocked shot in the fourth quarter that led to more Cass points. Hadley chipped in five markers.
Bixler had six steals and five rebounds. Keisling had four assists, four boards and two steals.
“I have to give a shoutout to my sophomore brother Bixler,” Keisling said. “He really stepped it up tonight. Last night he struggled and I struggled a little bit this game, but he got us going. And our freshman [Evan Ohman] stepped up. I can’t call him a freshman anymore because he’s playing like a senior almost. So a shoutout to the whole team. I’m just so proud of my whole team.”
Taylor led Oak Hill with 20 points. Reese Metzger had eight and Mauk and Caleb Maggard added seven apiece.
“They were better that I thought they were. They were a surprise,” Keisling said. “It was really fun to play against them.”
Oak Hill shot 20 of 38 from the field (52.6 percent) but Cass forced 20 turnovers and committed just four.