Easy does it: Pats find answer in down-tempo duel

By JOE JASINSKI
Herald Sports Writer

PETERBURG — It was as if the rule-abiding mother was cruising down the road, reluctant to drive one mile-per-hour over the speed limit. And there in the passenger seat sat the Heritage Hills boys basketball team.

With Pike Central at the wheel Friday night in Petersburg, the Chargers knew what could happen if they allowed those eager Patriots to persuade them into putting just a bit more pressure on the pedal. When that happens, the steering turns a bit reckless, and there sit the Pats, one hand gripping the assist handle, the other on the dashboard, a maniacal grin plastered on their face.

Ward

But Pike Central resisted the urge, managing to keep the Pocket Athletic Conference clash’s tempo in check. So Heritage Hills learned to adapt, as it’s had to do the past couple weeks against teams not as giddy about go-go-go. Despite a ridiculously low-scoring second quarter, a transition game that appeared only sporadically and early troubles in remembering to simply slow down, the Patriots drifted past the Charger 50-43, while continuing to grasp the reality that some teams just can’t be coaxed into accelerating.

Patriot coach Matt Sisley called it a carbon copy of his team’s 50-34 victory over Gibson Southern a week earlier, in which Heritage Hills tallied just eight points in each of the second and third quarters.

The counsel from coaches against the Chargers (4-4, 0-3) was no different.

“Patience,” Sisley said. “We’ve got to speed the game up, but if you don’t get it, be patient. First half, we sped the ball down the floor, we raced the ball down the floor and we took some quick 3s, out of rhythm. ... Second half, the flow was much better.”

After dialing in on just 6-of-21 field goals in the opening half, Heritage Hills deposited 12 of its 20 shots in the second. And save for a careless throwaway on their final possession, the Pats (9-1, 3-0) coughed the ball up just three times in the final 16 minutes, compared to five turnovers in the second quarter alone.

Ugh, the second quarter.

After the five giveaways and a questionable non-call on an overly physical block by a Charger big man on Spenser Minto’s shot beneath the basket, Heritage Hills broke out in transition for the first time in the game with less than a minute to go before halftime. Almost fittingly, the initial attempt didn’t fall, but Gavin Schaefer earned two shots on a putback try. He connected on the two foul shots for the Patriots’ only two points of the quarter with 36 seconds on the clock.

It was a total Sisley said he hadn’t seen since “some elementary Lutheran school I coached my first year out of college,” he kidded. “I think we scored two points in a half.”

As for Patriot guard Tyler Ward, who plucked a steal to create the fastbreak opportunity, the junior sensed something strange about midway through the period.

“I noticed about four minutes into the quarter,” Ward recalled. “I was like, ”˜We had 16 points at the end of the first (quarter) and we still have 16 points. We’ve got to do something.’ But we kept battling, we kept attacking the basket.”

Even with the dismal quarter, the Patriots reached the 50-point mark for the 32nd straight game. The last time Heritage Hills dipped below the half-century mark came at the 2012 sectional, a 41-37 loss to Vincennes Lincoln.

Despite a scoring output that fell 18 points below their season average entering the contest, and a rare single-digit scoring night for Devon Merder (nine points, 10 rebounds) — the last time arrived 28 games ago — the Patriots continued to acquire know-how for neck-and-neck bouts like Friday’s, which included 11 lead changes.

For one, don’t force the issue. Sisley lauded the patient penetration of point guard Sam Scherry, who played just five minutes in the first half because of foul trouble. In the second half, the senior sliced into the lane, converted all three of his layup attempts and dished out four assists. Plus, getting inside the Chargers’ 2-3 zone finally freed up space on the perimeter for Merder as well as Schaefer, who finished with a team-high 14 points. And when those options were shut down, Spenser Minto (13 points) finished down low, going 6-for-10 from the field.

When the senior forward gathered one of his five rebounds with less than six seconds to play in the third quarter and dished an outlet to Scherry, who then chucked a pass downcourt to Ward for a buzzer-beating layup to push Heritage Hills ahead 35-30 entering the final period, it seemed as if the Pats had finally begun dictating the speed they wanted.

But then Pike Central pumped the brakes, regained the lead and forced Heritage Hills to execute. Down 38-35, the Pats recorded buckets on their next five possessions, while also holding the Chargers scoreless for seven straight trips down the floor.

Kegan Aldridge paced Pike Central with 19 points and aided a Charger crew that started two freshmen and a sophomore yet committed just six turnovers against the Pats’ active defense. Garrett Elliott tacked on 10 points and six rebounds for the Chargers.

When Ward helped force Pike Central’s final turnover right beside the Patriots’ bench with Heritage Hills ahead by four with about four minutes to play, all those sitting jumped up as Ward and teammates exchanged some chest bumps.

“We kept battling,” Sisley said. “And that’s it. The kids in that locker room, they never stop battling.”

Did the slower speed impact the Pats? Of course, Ward acknowledged. But from the experience will come growth. And after that, watch out.

“There’s always room for improvement in everything. Even when we’re running, there’s room for improvement,” Ward said. “But we want to get to where teams can’t defend us either way, and they have to pick and choose which (style) they want. And we want to get them to where they’re equal and where we can still beat team by 20 even though they slowed us down.”

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