PLYMOUTH — Plymouth has been something of a first half team lately, building big cushions in the first two quarters and holding off opponents in the second half.
That all changed Thursday.
Not that the Pilgrims had a slow start — they opened with a 21-14 first frame and led by six at 32-26 at the half — but it was an 18-6 third quarter that made all the difference, and Plymouth cruised to a 69-45 Northern Lakes Conference season-closing win over visiting Wawasee on Senior Night at The Rock.
“You feel like it’s something that’s been building in the last couple weeks. We’ve had opportunities to build on leads and haven’t been able to do it,” said Plymouth head coach Ryan Bales. “I know they’ve been frustrated about it, we’ve been frustrated about it as a coaching staff. We love it when we’re able to put teams away and when you have a chance against a team that’s as explosive as that, you’d better do it or else they’re going to make a comeback.”
The Pilgrims held Wawasee scoreless from the field for the first 4:19 of the second half, opening the third frame with a 12-1 run keyed by a putback from sophomore center Mack Mercer — who finished with 14 points — and ending with a corner triple from Joe Knapp — who put up 13 — on an inside-out pass from senior forward John Ruff at the 4:05 mark of the quarter.
Ruff fell short of being the fourth Pilgrim in double figures Thursday — along with Mercer, Knapp and fellow senior Ryan McNeil, who led all scorers with 18 points on the strength of four 3s — finishing the night with eight points, but the Plymouth upperclassman tallied game-highs of six steals and six assists along with five rebounds in a strong all-around performance at a game set aside to honor him and his classmates.
“He’s almost like a point forward,” said Bales of Ruff. “He handles the ball and does a great job driving the paint.
“He’s a great defender, very hard-nosed. One of five great seniors that we have.”
With Thursday’s win, Plymouth wrapped up a two-way tie for second in the Northern Lakes Conference at 5-2 along with Concord after a five-point loss to NLC champ Elkhart Memorial Jan. 6 and a narrow double overtime defeat at Goshen Feb. 3. The Pilgrims also sewed up a perfect regular season finish on their home floor, going 10-0 at The Rock in Bales’ first year at the helm.
“We’ve played really well at home all season long. I think we bring just a different energy level here most of the season. This is probably one of our better efforts for sure, so that hopefully bodes well for us going into the postseason,” said Bales.
“As far as the NLC, it’s my first year being a part of it, but I know it’s typically a very strong conference. I feel like from top to bottom this year it’s just been unreal. You’ve got a great Memorial at the top, and Concord is playing some great basketball, and all the other teams, the Warsaws, the Goshens, Northridge, us, they’re just some scrappy teams and teams that take a lot of pride in what they do. We’re not obviously happy that we finished in second place, but we made a run at it. It wasn’t from a lack of heart, lack of effort, we just came up a little bit short in those games, and they’re games hopefully we can learn from and get better going into the postseason.”
The Pilgrims paid tribute at Thursday’s game to seniors Ruff, McNeil, Hayden Skirvin, Kyle Kaser — who put up six points with two steals and an assist — and Connor Flynn, who knocked down his first 3-pointer of the season to bring the score to its final margin with 1:27 remaining.
“I’m proud of our five seniors, Skirvin and Flynn and Kaser and McNeil and Ruff. They’re just a great group of boys. Even our manager, Larissa Tetzloff, all six are just very unselfish,” Bales said. “They do whatever it takes for the team to succeed, and for my first year being able to coach them they’re the type of kids I’d like to have around for three more years after this.”
Wawasee was led at Plymouth by freshman guard Alex Clark’s 14 points and senior forward Bauer Schmeltz’s 11. Clark buried four 3s and Schmeltz knocked down three as the Warriors poured in 11 of 31 from beyond the arc in the loss, which drops the team to 9-11 with a winless conference finish.
Plymouth improves to 14-5 overall and will close its regular season with a game at Sectional 19 foe John Glenn next Tuesday.
• PLYMOUTH 69, WAWASEE 45
Score by quarters
Wawasee: 14 26 32 45
Plymouth: 21 32 50 69
WAWASEE (45): Austin Lutz 0, Douglas Hapner 0, Tren Koble 1, Chase Myers 0, Jake Clark 8, Ryndan Aaron 8, Alex Clark 14, Zac Patrick 3, Garrett Balser 0, Bauer Schmeltz 11; Totals: 15 4-9 45.
PLYMOUTH (69): Ryan McNeil 18, Gabe Vervynckt 0, Joe Knapp 13, David Lee 2, Connor Flynn 3, Mack Mercer 14, Ike Kastner 3, Kyser McCrammer 1, John Ruff 8, Kyle Kaser 6, Tom Felke 1, Hayden Skirvin 0, Trenton Briles 0; Totals: 29 5-8 69.
3-pointers: Wawasee 11 (A. Clark 4, Schmeltz 3, Aaron 2, J. Clark, Patrick), Plymouth 6 (McNeil 4, Knapp, Flynn); Turnovers: Wawasee 13, Plymouth 8; Rebounds: Wawasee 19 (J. Clark 4, A. Clark 4), Plymouth 32 (Mercer 6); Steals: Wawasee 5 (J. Clark 2), Plymouth 10 (Ruff 6); Assists: Wawasee 10 (J. Clark 6), Plymouth 19 (Ruff 6); Fouls (fouled out): Wawasee 17 (none), Plymouth 15 (none).
Records: Plymouth 14-5 (5-2 NLC), Wawasee 9-11 (0-7 NLC).
JV score: Plymouth 53 (Trenton Briles 13, Zach Stone 11), Wawasee 32 (Jacob Blackburn 7).