Patriots showcase new mettle in late-game escape

By BRENDAN PERKINS
Herald Sports Editor

LINCOLN CITY — Say one thing for Heritage Hills, the Patriots are gaining attention. Whether it’s their neon orange socks that they’ve been wearing to many home games — or their ever-inflating win total and proclivity for scoring — others have surely taken notice.

Saturday, the Patriot boys basketball team learned a thing or two about life with increased celebrity status.

First: Opposing teams are dying to make an ambush.

Washington, a two-win team that stared down the experienced Pats with a scoring attack fueled by two sophomores and a freshman, unsettled Heritage Hills most of the night on its home floor. But that led the Pats to Part 2 of Saturday’s revelation.

Second: The Pats sport plenty of wherewithal to persevere, even on nights that are a struggle. Their 70-69 escape of the Hatchets revealed that the Pats are capable of prevailing via the comeback mode, too. It’s a different dance than they’re used to, as Heritage Hills (8-1) had won every game this season by 16 or more points but needed a rally from 15 points down on Saturday.

“People are going to be coming after us,” said Patriot senior Devon Merder, who managed just four free throws in the first half but finished with 27 points and four assists. “It’s something different, because we’ve been beating teams pretty handily so far this year and last year we had a lot of close games. It’s a little different but we’re going to have to adjust to it.”

“We know we have a target on our back, we know we have to come out and bring it every night,” added Heritage Hills junior Gavin Schaefer, who kicked in 12 points and six boards while coping with foul trouble. “Tonight, we didn’t come out ready to play, but we were fortunate enough to come back.”

Patriot coach Matt Sisley surmised his team was “just kind of in la-la land” for much of the first three quarters, and in spite of everything that annoyed him — namely seven first-quarter turnovers and repeated defensive breakdowns that prompted him to burn timeouts — the fourth quarter was far more representative of the team Sisley’s seen all year.

On 15 possessions in the fourth quarter, the Pats scored on 13 and never had a turnover. When Merder pump-faked by his man and stepped inside the arc for a jumper with 3:26 left, Heritage Hills led 62-61 — its first advantage of the game after trailing 42-27 early in the third. Washington (2-7) again wiggled ahead 67-64, but the Patriots returned fire with three buckets in the final 1:05.

After Spenser Minto scored inside and the Hatchets missed a jumper, Merder sliced to the hole for a layup and a 68-67 Patriot edge. And when Tyler Stoll’s two free throws returned the lead to Washington, the Pats’ top two scorers worked in unison for the eventual winning bucket.

Merder stacked up 23 points in the second half, and when he received the ball in the corner, Washington guessed that’s where the next shot was coming from. But when Minto’s man started wandering that direction, Merder looped a pass down low for another easy finish by Minto, who added 19 points on 9-of-10 shooting. Sam Scherry added seven points, seven assists and six boards for the Pats.

For Sisley, seeing Merder carry the Pats with 14 points in the fourth quarter — then find a way to get open despite being targeted with a box-and-one defense on the sequence when he then deferred to Minto for the game-winning bucket — “that’s just the senior leader that he’s been,” Sisley said. Merder also engaged in a face-off of sorts on the final play of the game. Matched up on Colten Garland, who stuck six 3-pointers and totaled 21 points, Merder made Garland settle for a slightly off-balance 3-point try that bounced off the back rim at the final horn.

“Everything that Washington threw at them, they handled well tonight. They really did,” Sisley said. “That’s a sign of becoming a good team. You’re not going to go out and beat people by 40 every night. We had a tough weekend.”

The Hatchets toggled among a variety of zone defenses against Heritage Hills, one night after the Patriots stood up to Gibson Southern’s stubborn 2-3 zone and patient, spread offense. Sisley acknowledged his team looked beat after “we guarded so hard last night” in muzzling the Titans to 34 points.

It required a wake-up call to do it, but the Pats eventually discovered that level of vigor on the back end of their double weekend.

“We had our highest energy in the fourth quarter, so that’s good,” Sisley said. “I’m not thrilled with some stuff that went on tonight, but we’ll go back and get better next week.”

The Pats, after all, know foes will be watching.

Earlier this season, Southridge coach Jeremy Rauch touted Heritage Hills as the best team in the conference and the sectional. And after taking Washington’s best shot Saturday, the Pats still have regular-season tussles remaining with fellow sectional opponents Jasper, Southridge, Pike Central and Vincennes Lincoln — and three of those four feature winning records.

“I don’t think we’re going to be able to afford coming out like that in the sectional, just with the target on our back and everything,” Minto said. “We’re going to have to come out a little bit better, and it’s going to be tougher to come back on teams like those in situations like that.”

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