Rangers end foul outing with drama

Herald Sports Writer

REO — The opener at the PSC Holiday Classic at South Spencer went pretty much as expected.

Heritage Hills started a little flat, righted the ship after halftime and then cruised to a 20-plus point victory over a winless Boonville team.

The evening’s nightcap though between Forest Park and the host Rebels was slightly more dramatic.

Despite losing three starters to foul trouble, missing 16 free throws and falling behind at the end of regulation and in overtime, the Rangers clawed their way to an emphatic 67-64 win against previously undefeated South Spencer in their tournament opener. The fact that the go-ahead three-pointer with seven seconds left in overtime came from a sophomore reserve with less than two minutes of playing time in the contest was just another quirk in a wild, physical and often-times ugly game.

“I’ve been around this for 20 years and I’ve never seen anything like it,” Forest Park coach Jeff Litherland said. “It was basically a football game and all of the sudden (the refs) wanted to start calling fouls.”

And once the whistle started chirping, it didn’t stop.

The two teams combined for 55 total fouls and lost five players to penalties. The Rangers (3-2) attempted a season-high 33 free throws, but converted just 17. That line alone could have spelled the end for Forest Park except that the Rebels (5-1) converted just 19-of-34 from the line.

But down the stretch, the Rangers’ insistence on driving and creating tough shots in the paint — rather than settling for looks from 3-point range — was one of the chief reasons Litherland’s undersized squad was able to sustain its lead against a talented South Spencer group.

“(Against Northeast Dubois last Friday), we scored nine times in the paint in a row on (Tyler Haas) and (Eric Dodson) and I told them, ”˜There’s no Haas or Dodson on (South Spencer). Just keep attacking, keeping attacking and with (Damon Wilmes) and (Joel Weyer) and (Ben Englert) and even (Dakota Begle), they are getting more comfortable doing that and as they get more comfortable, it’s going to open up their outside shot a little better.

“Our strategy was to drive to the rim and either get a foul or get a bucket,” Wilmes added. “We’d just try to go to the rim and try to finish and hopefully get back in it little bit by little bit.”

Although for most of the game it was the Rebels that were inching their way back in. The Rangers shot ahead to an early 12-5 lead and entered halftime with an eight-point margin thanks to six points off the bench from Austin Egloff and a 5-of-26 shooting performance from South Spencer. But as South Spencer gained traction down low in the second half, the Ranger lead bounced from one to four until the Rebel reserve John Michael Stallings hit a three with  1:35 remaining to make it 47-all.

That would not be the end of the drama. After Weyer (16 points) sank two free throws with 11 seconds remaining to make it 53-50 Forest Park, the Rangers tried to foul on the ensuing possession to send South Spencer to the line. But even as Weyer appeared to  intentionally grab hold of Stallings, no foul was called and Stallings was able to get his own reboundand launch a contested 3-pointer from the corner. This time though the referee decided he was fouled and Stallings swished all three free throws to tie the game with less than a second left.

Overtime followed the same pattern. South Spencer scored. Forest Park answered. South Spencer senior Isaac Hebner banged in a two from close range; Wilmes snuck in for the same. Ben Wendholt, fresh off the bench after Ben Englert received his fifth foul, converted his first basket to tie the game at 64-all with 56 seconds remaining and after the Rebels turned it over the next possession, the Rangers had a chance for the last shot. Three starters with Wilmes, Dakota Begle (10 points, eight rebounds) and Weyer (16 points including 9-of-12 from the line) were in the game, but it was Wendholt who received a pass sitting wide-open above the elbow. The sophomore, who had just entered the game a minute ago, took one step back and calmly nailed a 3-pointer with seven seconds remaining. South Spencer missed a running-three as time expired and the Ranger bench exploded.

Wilmes called the win and Wendholt’s clinching shot “amazing,” but said he still wasn’t sure why the sophomore stepped back for the three with the game tied. As it turns out, Wendholt didn’t know either.

“I don’t know what I was thinking really,” Wendholt said amused. “I guess if you’re close you step back. It’s what I’m used to.”

“Wendholt is a gamer,” Litherland explained. “He’s the football quarterback and he started baseball as a freshman; it’s kind of fitting for him to make the shot there at the end.”

For their effort, the Rangers were rewarded with a another matchup against an undefeated team, this time against Heritage Hills, who have started the 2013-’14 season in impressive fashion.
Friday’s 70-47 win against Boonville was actually the Patriot’s second-closest margin of victory this season. Although for the first 16 minutes, Boonville got only flashes of the Heritage Hills squad that is beating opponents by an average of 27.3 points a game.

“I thought our defensive intensity was not what it was in the first three games for whatever reason,” Patriot coach Matt Sisley said. “I thought we were pretty focused on Boonville coming in, we just didn’t play with the intensity we had played with. We had our hands down, (Boonville) hit some 3s and we got beat off the dribble way too many times.”

Boonville (0-6) got as close as four points at halftime, but as has been the case many times the season, the Patriots, who senior Spenser Minto explained got “lit up pretty good” in the locker room, went on a 10-1 run to start the third and were up by 19 to start the fourth. Minto led Heritage Hills with a season-high 22 points on 10-of-12 shooting.

“I think (Boonvile’s defense was) so focused on Devon and Gavin and (Sam Scherry) up front that when we’re able to beat them off the dribble, Spenser’s man was sucking up,” Sisley said. “Devon Merder made some great no-look passes tonight for point-blank bunnies and (Minto) did a great job moving on that baseline down there and being in position to score.”

Merder grabbed 20 points along with seven rebounds and four assists. Gavin Schaefer, who didn’t play in the first half for breaking a team rule, provided a spark in the second with 11 points.

Last season, the Patriots missed the Rangers in the PSC Classic, but edged Forest Park 56-54 in Ferdinand. This year the team’s will get an early look before the eventual February matchup. Both teams enter with three-plus game winning streaks, although after two resounding victories, the Rangers are gaining confidence after a rocky 0-2 start.

“They are very confident,” Litherland said about his players. “They’re starting to believe in themselves. Both games we lost we were in them late. ... We’re winning ballgames with a lot of guys who didn’t have a whole of experience.

“I think if we continue to get better and we stay healthy and we stay confident, we’re going to continue to grow. I think we’ve got a long way to go.”

Contact Joseph Fanelliat jfanelli@dcherald.com

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