Persistence pushes Pats past Rangers, into final

By JOE JASINSKI
Herald Sports Writer

REO — A simple hesitation dribble granted Devon Merder an open track to the basket along the right baseline. The Heritage Hills senior elevated and got bumped by a Forest Park defender as the ball kissed off the glass and in with two minutes left in the fourth quarter.

And with that, a summation of the Patriots’ far-from-seamless Saturday night success in Reo: They got the job done, but the end result arrived with plenty of resistance. Eventually, however, perseverance paid and the Patriots pulled away to a 59-39 verdict, punching their ticket to tonight’s PSC Holiday Classic championship.

Through five contests for the Patriots (5-0), they’ve won every game by 20 or more. Yet against the Rangers, it felt like anything but a painless punchout, Patriot coach Matt Sisley said.

“This game tonight felt like it was a three-point win. It was a tough game. Anytime these two schools play … (the Rangers) just compete. Forest Park competes so hard,” said Sisley, a look of anguish pasted on his face. “We had to earn everything. ... It was just a struggle tonight. They guarded. I thought they guarded us, they know our kids well. Everything we did tonight, we had to do the old-fashioned way. We had to make the extra pass, we had to make the extra drive and had to wait till their defense broke down to score.”

As Sisley said, those breakdowns seldom arrived, even against a Ranger squad slightly sluggish after a bruising overtime clash against South Spencer that concluded less than 24 hours prior.

Against a team that thrives on pushing the pace, the Rangers (3-3) limited Heritage Hills to just a handful of run-out baskets.

Yet as tight as Forest Park played defensively, so too did Heritage Hills, illustrated by the Rangers’ 12 first-half turnovers. Add on the Rangers’ fatigue and the four-plus minutes it took them to register a point in the third quarter and the task of recovering from a 30-21 halftime deficit became a bit more daunting, Ranger coach Jeff Litherland said.

“We got caught standing around and watching them play. I don’t know if it was that or that we were really tired. ... Our defense was nowhere near what it has been,” Litherland said. “I used three timeouts in the first half and challenged them. I said, ”˜Guys, you’re giving up wide-open transition layups and turning the ball over and we’re down one (point after one quarter). … Let’s play basketball.’”

The Pats preached much the same.

“We knew we were going to be in a battle,” Merder said. “That’s something we enforced in the locker room and that’s something we wanted to work on: strengthening our defense in the second half, and I thought we did that great.”

Ranger guard Ben Englert connected on all four of his field goal attempts in the first half but managed just 1-of-5 shooting in the second, finishing with a team-high 12 points. Teammate Damon Wilmes added eight points and a team-high five rebounds.

“We knew they were going to be able to make runs,” said Litherland, whose squad surrendered nine unanswered points after halftime. “We tried to control it as best we could but we couldn’t answer offensively.”

The Rangers’ second-half field goal percentage (24 percent) dropped significantly from its 43 percent clip in the first half, while taking the same amount of shots (21) in each segment. Meanwhile, the Patriots continued operating with efficiency (56 percent shooting) in a four-turnover second half despite quiet nights from Tyler Ward and a foul-stricken Sam Scherry, who combined for six points.

And while Patriot forward Spenser Minto (14 points) continued his recent surge with 10 first-half points and Gavin Schaefer emerging from a slow start with eight of his 10 points in the second, Merder offered consistency throughout. And in every facet, as the 6-foot-4 guard limited Ranger point guard Joel Weyer to just eight points on 2-of-11 shooting while compiling a game-high 18 points himself.

And while the points came as no surprise, the other dimensions Merder offered proved just as vital.

The senior latched onto a game-high nine rebounds, eight coming on the defensive end as the Rangers had just six second-chance opportunities. He snagged two steals in the second quarter, both of which he took for transition layups.

And along with hitting 7-of-13 field goals, Merder dished out four assists. A backdoor bounce pass to Justin Crane. A nifty drive-and-dish to Minto. A wrap-around pass off a baseline drive to Andy Sickbert. And a look ahead to Torrin Madden in lieu of an uncontested layup himself.

“He’s gotten really comfortable,” Sisley said. “He’s starting to understand people have scouted him. They’re on to him and when he draws two (defenders), he’s giving up (the ball). And he has no problem with that.”

The ease and expansion “comes with maturation,” as Merder sees it, and the yearning for refinement on a daily basis. It’s a feeling shared by all the Patriots, who face perhaps their toughest task yet against Class 3A No. 7 Corydon Central (6-0) tonight at 7:15 CST, while the Rangers square off against Crawford County (6-1) at 6:30 p.m. EST in the consolation game.

“That’s our goal every day is to get better and better,” Merder said. “And this is one of our three main goals this year is to win the PSC Holiday Classic. And we’re one step closer to doing that.”

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