BY PEDRO VELAZCO
At halftime of Northwestern’s boys basketball game at Cass on Friday night, Purple Tiger coach Jim Gish re-emphasized what the Tigers needed to do. As starting center Chase Johnson recounted, they had to rebound, hit free throws, and especially lower their turnover rate after giving the ball away 13 times in the opening half.
They didn’t get everything they wanted, but two of three wasn’t bad as the Tigers snatched a victory with continued strong play in the paint and a lot safer ballhandling en route to a grinding 48-43 victory.
Northwestern snapped a three-game skid with the win, improving to 5-5 overall and 2-2 in the Mid-Indiana Conference. Cass fell to 6-5, 1-2 in the MIC.
“[The Kings] are playing really well and wow, are they athletic,” Gish said. “This is a grind-it-out-type game and it’s important that we try to take things one possession at a time. I thought we had some guys really step up and hit some big shots.”
Several did, none more than Johnson, who is the area’s leading rebounder. The 6-foot-7 senior dominated inside, scoring 16 points and snagging 15 rebounds. His play through three quarters did a lot to keep Northwestern ahead for a 30-27 lead through three quarters. Then in the fourth, several teammates stepped forward with vital points as the Tigers withstood challenges from the Kings and never let go of the lead. Trenton Brazel scored eight of his 13 in the fourth quarter (though he hit 6 of 13 from the free throw line in that frame), Keagan Downey added two buckets, and Blake Oakley, Logan Galbraith and Johnson added single hoops.
Cass trimmed the Northwestern lead to 38-37 with 3:43 left on back-to-back triples on either wing by forward Jordan Miller. The Kings again trimmed the lead to one at 40-39 a couple possessions later, but got no closer.
“We made some bad decisions,” Cass coach Jon Kitchel said. “We fouled too quick, tried to force passes that weren’t there, we just didn’t play very smart. We played hard, both teams did, they just converted at the right time and we didn’t.
“Their defense was really good. We didn’t have very many unconstested shots.”
While turnovers were a problem early on for NW — 13 in the first half, and then just five in the second — their 20 of 36 shooting was a strong suit. The Tigers made a point to get the ball to Johnson early and often and he responded with 6 of 7 shooting in the first half, helping the Tigers to a 22-21 halftime lead.
“They’ve been working hard at it, finally [Friday] night, they were able to get it in,” said Johnson, who scored off passes from several players. “The team did a great job looking inside.”
It was a point of emphasis.
“It’s important that he get touches, not necessarily that Chase get shots, but Chase get touches,” Gish said. “They obviously wanted to come out and take Trenton away from us. That was their goal the whole night, they had somebody hanging off his shirt the whole night in a very physical ball game. What it does is opens some things up for Chase inside. I was pretty impressed with the job he did on both ends of the floor.”
Smooth-shooting guard Austin Keisling led Cass with 19 points, and Miller added a dozen. Ryan Aldridge took 11 rebounds.
Galbraith added eight points for Northwestern, Oakley scored seven points off the bench and Downey added four in a reserve role.
Gish noted Northwestern’s players had other things on their minds this week besides basketball.
“We had a tragedy in our community with a young man that was killed in a car accident [former NW student Blake Taylor], and I’d like to say the Northwestern basketball team really sends their thoughs and prayers to the Taylor family,” Gish said. “I wholeheartedly mean that.”