RENSSELAER — Win steaks, bragging rights and sectional positioning were at stake at Rensselaer Central Tuesday night.
Two of the area’s hottest teams — North Newton with a six-game win streak, RCHS with five wins in a row — did battle at Joe Burvan Gymnasium in what could be a sectional preview in March.
Despite trailing by 11 points at one point in the second half, the Spartans rallied to tie the game (40-40) on freshman Evan Gagnon’s 3-point shot with over a minute remaining.
But the Bombers regained momentum late, getting a basket from junior Tate Drone at the rim and hitting three free throws in the final 40 seconds to secure a 45-40 victory.
The Bombers (8-7) led 31-20 in the third period, but were outscored 12-6 in the third period. Free throws by Gagnon with 2:03 remaining in the game pulled his team within three of the lead at 38-35.
Rensselaer pushed its lead back to five points, but a basket by Cade Ehlinger and Gagnon’s 3-pointer knotted the game at 40. After the Bombers took the lead, North Newton (9-5) had a chance at taking the lead, but senior Austin Goddard’s 3-point attempt sailed over the rim.
Drone was fouled and hit 1 of 2 free throws, and after another miss by the Spartans on their end of the floor, senior Josh Fleming was put at the line with five seconds remaining. He hit both foul shots to secure his team’s sixth straight win.
Switching from a zone defense to man-to-man in the fourth quarter helped spark their comeback.
“We came out and battled,” Spartans coach Sam Zachery said. “I can’t be prouder of their effort. We got a few stops, but we had to come out of our zone and play man. We talked about how that could be a struggle when you look at match-ups, but I actually thought we played better. And it was a nice mix-up for them. When you play a zone for three-and-a-half quarters, teams get used to it. Teams get in a rhythm and know where they’re going to get shots. But that mix-up threw them off at the end.”
Bombers coach Chad Pulver felt North Newton’s zone was good enough to slow down his team’s offense.
“Their zone is really good,” he said. “They’re big, bigger than most teams we’ve been playing lately, so we had to adjust to that. Our reads as a unit weren’t positive for us. We weren’t necessarily seeing that we were covered and where to go with the ball. I thought in the second half we did a little better job of trying to rotate the ball and get the ball right to left and left to right.”
Fleming finished with a team-high 15 points, He added five assists and five rebounds.
Sophomore Colby Chapman added 12 points, including eight in the first period when RCHS took a lead it would not relinquish. He knocked down a pair of 3-pointers to put his team up 12-4 early.
“We started off hot,” Chapman said. “Shots were falling, and they were falling in the offense, too. The first half, we were doing a good job with that, but in the second half we stopped doing what we were doing and they made a little comeback, especially in the fourth quarter.”
RCHS led 24-16 at halftime and went up 28-18 early in the second half on back-to-back driving layups by Chapman.
“I’ve been working on my 3s for the longest time, but I felt like they were closing in on me and I just took it inside,” Chapman said. “They would either have two guys collapse on me, and when they didn’t, I just took it strong to the basket.”
Drone had seven points, eight rebounds and three steals.
Goddard, the Spartans’ leading scorer at 17.5 ppg., was limited to eight points on 4 of 15 shooting, but did have six assists. Ehlinger had seven points and six rebounds.
“We were trying our best to put (Goddard) in spots he didn’t want to be,” Pulver said, “but he’s a strong kid, a fast kid, and he knows what to do with the ball. He’s got a lot of really good qualities as a player and he gets his teammates involved. We had to make it hard for him and the guys he was trying to get the ball to; make it a little more difficult to drop those dimes.”
Zachery was pleased to see Goddard find other ways to contribute even as he was targeted by RCHS along the perimeter.
“He’s our best player and we have to have the ball in his hands quite a bit,” Zachery said. “He’s getting better recognizing when to give it up and when to look for the open guy. The first half he was playing like he usually does where he gets a lot of shots then realized they were taking that away. The second half he was doing a really good job of distributing the ball.”
North Newton’s resurgence under Zachery has not gone unnoticed by Pulver, who feels this year’s sectional tournament will be a free-for-all.
“We have talked quite a bit about how much growth his team has had and how they are playing so much better as a unit,” Pulver said. “It’s really nice to see. I know I’m going to root for the Bombers over other teams, but it’s nice to have community schools doing well and growing and having some success.”
After some research, Zachery discovered that the Bombers own a 40-4 mark against North Newton’s program over the past 35 years. He hopes to build a program that will be much more competitive than that going forward.
“Tonight’s effort says a lot about our kids and it says a lot about what the kids are doing to change our program,” he said. “The kids are buying in and doing everything we ask of them. It’s getting better.”
Over the last four meetings, the Spartans have been beaten by 38 points, then 17, trailed by one at halftime at last year’s sectional and lost by five Tuesday.
“We’re closing the gap. We just have to get over that hump because we’re not used to beating Rensselaer,” he said.
To a player, the Bombers knew they would get North Newton’s best effort Tuesday.
“We didn’t underestimate them at all,” Chapman said. “From this year to last year, they’re much better. They’ve got a good team, but we had a game plan coming in and I thought we stuck to it.”