On Friday evening, Whiteland boys basketball coach Nate Cangany wasn’t yet worried about how his team was going to handle a Center Grove team that had manhandled the Warriors four weeks ago.
“I think the tougher thing was playing against a team you just played against last Friday and beat by 16,” Cangany said. “Making sure that you have kids that are mentally tough enough and strong enough to feel like this game’s important and not look to tomorrow.”
Whiteland passed that test, beating Greenwood by the same margin it did a week earlier. A 12-0 run that spanned most of the third quarter proved to be the difference in the Warriors’ 39-23 victory over the Woodmen in a Johnson County tournament semifinal at Indian Creek.
The Warriors (9-6) face Center Grove in tonight’s championship game. The Trojans won the first meeting between the two teams, 61-46, on Dec. 17.
To earn that rematch, though, Whiteland had to get past the rival Woodmen, who fought tooth and nail throughout despite the absence of two starters.
Defense ruled in the early going, with the Warriors not hitting a shot from the field until the 2:34 mark of the first quarter. Transition buckets from Austin Willoughby and Drew Higdon before the end of the period made it a 5-2 game, and Whiteland opened the second with a Max Sullivan 3-pointer and a steal and layup from Dylan Gross.
Meanwhile, Greenwood (7-6) endured an eight-minute, 52-second scoring drought before Noah Apgar knocked down a 3 with 5:22 to go in the half. The Woodmen continued to chip away at the deficit, eventually coming back to tie the game at 16-16 on an Apgar jumper with 7:25 to go in the third quarter.
But while Greenwood was able to bounce back from one dry spell, it couldn’t overcome another — and Whiteland answered Apgar’s tying bucket with a dozen straight points over the next seven-plus minutes. A pair of three-point plays from Willoughby and back-to-back layups from Higdon stretched it to 28-16 before Apgar ended the quarter with a 3-pointer for the Woodmen.
The ability to force some turnovers and get points in transition was the key to the Warriors’ third-period surge.
“That just boost the morale of the team, and people are more energetic,” Higdon said. “It just brings more juice to the team, and everyone’s more active. Better defense, better offense, just altogether better.”
Apgar’s shot wasn’t enough to shift the momentum back in Greenwood’s favor; the spread never got closer than eight in the final period. The senior finished with a team-high 10 points, but nobody else on the Woodmen had more than four.
“We knew going in we were going to be challenged a little bit offensively,” Greenwood coach Joe Bradburn said. “Defensively, I thought we had a good game plan; the coaches did a nice job of putting some stuff together, and the players followed it. We gave ourselves a chance to win from a defensive standpoint, but from an offensive standpoint, we just shoot ourselves in the foot.”
Cangany was just as pleased with his team’s showing on the defensive end — Whiteland is allowing just 50.1 points per game despite generally playing an up-tempo style — but he knows the Warriors will have to be more consistent with the ball in their hands to get another win today.
“Offensively, when we play with more of a purpose and we have good ball movement, when we were cutting, screening, had better player movement, we felt like our offense was pretty good,” the coach said. “But when we got stagnant, it was almost like we were playing iso basketball, and that’s not sustainable. … We feel like we’re a good defensive team, but offensively we’ve got to make sure that we’re consistently moving, consistently sharing the ball and having that balance that makes us dangerous.”
Higdon scored 10 points for the Warriors, while Sullivan had nine and Willoughby eight. Higdon and Gross each contributed three steals on the defensive end.
With the stubborn Woodmen behind them, Whiteland turns its focus to the Trojans — and the team is confident it will put forth a better effort the second time around.
“When we played them the first time, we started off slow, we didn’t hustle at all, and that’s not how we play,” Higdon said. “If we play our best, then we can beat them.”