Ruff finish for Pilgrims in NLC-opening win

NAPPANEE — “Just like we drew it up,” said a smiling Plymouth head coach Ryan Bales on his way out of the locker room.
John Ruff split a pair of defenders in the lane for the go-ahead layup with under 4 seconds to go, Mack Mercer altered NorthWood shooter Jonathan Wilkinson’s would-be game changer at the buzzer on the other end, and Plymouth stole a 53-52 Northern Lakes Conference opening win after trailing for more than 27 minutes in a come-from-behind thriller with a championship atmosphere at the Panther Pit Friday night.
“On the board before the game we just talked about being persistent,” said Bales. “We knew it wasn’t going to be easy. They just stuck with it. I challenged them at halftime. It maybe came down to heart. It came down to if it was a win or loss then we’ve got to be absolutely dead tired from fighting and fighting and fighting. I thought we did that.
“It was just awesome. Obviously a great win for these guys here, and I’m awfully proud of them.”
Plymouth (5-0, 1-0 NLC) ran up a 6-0 lead in the game’s opening 1:12, but NorthWood (2-3, 0-1 NLC) quickly responded with its own 9-0 run to take the lead at the 4:48 mark of the first period. The Pilgrims tied up the game three times in the first half — once on a Ryan McNeil 3 in the first and two more times in the second on a driving layup and putback by Ruff — but never retook the lead as Panthers shooters rained in 5 of 10 3-pointers to take a 35-28 lead into halftime.
“We had some great possessions in the first half and we had some poor ones, and there were not too many in between,” said Bales. “Defensively, when we did things correctly we caused deflections, we caused steals, it was one and done. Offensively, when we cut hard, when we posted up hard good things happened. But it was few and far between to say it easy. We had too many possessions where they wanted it more than us, we weren’t cutting hard, we didn’t demand the ball in the post hard enough.
“Defensively, we’d go from talking and communicating, getting stops for two possessions, and all of a sudden we’d go quiet for two possessions. I can’t explain that. It’s something they’re going to have to figure out. It’s something we’re going to honestly keep on them about, but I thought they were locked in the second half and found a way to win.”
The Panthers buried another two triples to jump off to a 6-0 start to the third and open up an 11-point, 41-28 lead over the visitors, but Ruff split a pair of free throws drawing a foul in the lane with 15.3 seconds remaining in the period to cut that lead back to single digits at 47-36 going into the final frame.
The senior forward took a charge at the start of the fourth, and McNeil assisted Kyle Kaser on a layup at the other end to drop the lead to 46-39 with 6:50 remaining. A driving kick from David Lee and corner 3 from McNeil — his third and final trey of the night — at the 4:45 stop brought the Pilgrims within four at 50-46, and, after Lee came down with the defensive rebound on the other end, the junior point guard pushed the ball up the floor for a quick transition layup to cut the lead further to 50-48 with 3:23 to go.
NorthWood’s Derek Yoder split a pair of freebies in the double bonus to stretch the lead back to 51-48 10 seconds later, but Lee made another big play with a steal and two free throws off a foul on the ensuing breakaway to leave the Panthers with a tenuous 51-50 lead. Yoder again split a pair of free throws to push the lead back to 52-51, but Ruff knocked down the front end of a one and one with 1:07 on the clock to bring the score to 52-51.
NorthWood freshman Braxton Miller missed both of two free throw attempts with 26.9 seconds left, and Ruff parted the lane for the game-winner to keep the Pilgrims undefeated in five games.
While McNeil led Plymouth a second straight game in scoring with 13 points, Ruff finished with 12 to complement game-highs of six rebounds, five assists and five steals at the Panther Pit.
“You know you’re going to get plays out of him, whether that’s good or bad,” said Bales of Ruff. “He’s going to try to go as hard as he can, and he’s going to try to make plays. Sometimes we’ve got to pull him out for a play or two, get him settled down. He’s an emotional kid: When things are going well he’s great to have around; when things are not going well you pull him out and he takes a deep breath.
“The take at the end was under control; it wasn’t forced. It looked like the sea was opening there. I thought we had great movement. He finds ways to get to the basket — he puts his head down and goes.”
Plymouth also got strong play off the bench from several players led by senior forward Kyle Kaser, who finished with nine points, three rebounds, an assist and two steals, as well as junior guard Ike Kastner, who pulled down a pair of rebounds and dished out two assists while coming away with three steals in nearly 14 minutes of floor time.
“We’re starting to figure out a little bit of a rotation,” said Bales. “It’s good to see guys step up. They come out and they hustle off the court. The guys that come in the game, they’re ready to go. You don’t have to wait a play or two for them to step up, and that’s honestly the key part. We can talk about rotation, we can talk about guys running in and out, but we just have guys that are ready to play and that are ready to make plays.”
NorthWood was led by Wilkinson, who hit 4 of 7 3s en route to a game-leading 19 points, while Zach Zurcher scored 12 and Miller finished with 11 points for the Panthers, who slipped to 2-3 with an 0-1 conference start in their first loss in three outings.
Plymouth stays unbeaten at 5-0 after surviving its first road test since the season-opener at Triton Nov. 29. The thrilling win also marked the first NLC victory for Bales, in his first year with the Pilgrims after transferring from alma mater North Judson.
“On a high school level it’s a lot like watching the Big Ten, to be honest with you,” said Bales. “You see the Big Ten teams, you could see a Michigan State, a top-ranked team that could go to a Northwestern, maybe .500, and Northwestern finds a way to stick with it. We come here having a good record, but it doesn’t matter. NorthWood came out and they competed extremely hard. They executed the majority of the game; they did a great job. It was a battle. What an atmosphere. I thought we had a great crowd, great following tonight. We knew we were in for a battle, and our guys just hung with it.”
At Nappanee
Score by quarters
Plymouth: 17 28 36 53
NorthWood: 21 35 44 52
PLYMOUTH (53): Ryan McNeil 5 0-1 13, Gabe Vervynckt 0 0-0 0, David Lee 3 2-2 8, Connor Flynn 0 0-0 0, Mack Mercer 4 1-2 9, Mack Mercer 4 1-2 9, Kyser McCrammer 1 0-0 2, John Ruff 4 3-9 12, Kyle Kaser 4 1-2 9, Tom Felke 0 0-0 0; Torals: 21 7-16 53.
NORTHWOOD (52): Braxton Miller 5 0-2 11, Zach Zurcher 4 3-5 12, Derek Yoder 2 2-4 7, Tanner Farmwald 0 0-0 0, Tommy Klem 0 0-3 0, Kyle McCoy 0 0-0 0, Jonathan Wilkinson 7 1-1 19, Spencer Culp 0 0-0 0, Will Stueve 1 0-0 2; Totals: 19 7-17 52.
3-pointers: Plymouth 4 (McNeil 3, Ruff), NorthWood 7 (Wilkinson 4, Miller, Zurcher, Yoder); Turnovers: Plymouth 17, NorthWood 19; Rebounds: Plymouth 34 (Ruff 6), NorthWood 30 (Zurcher 6); Assists: Plymouth 15 (Ruff 5), NorthWood 10 (Yoder 7); Steals: Plymouth 17 (Ruff 5), NorthWood Yoder 5); Blocked shots: Plymouth 2 (Mercer 2), NorthWood 5 (Zurcher 2, Stueve 2); Fouls (fouled out): Plymouth 17 (none), NorthWood 14 (none).
Records: Plymouth 5-0 (1-0 NLC), NorthWood 2-3 (0-1 NLC)
JV score: NorthWood 41 (Kyle McCoy 13), Plymouth 19 (Zachary Stone 5)