ADA — Van Wert's boys basketball team faced a tall task on Wednesday night in its Division II district semifinal game at Ohio Northern University, and that task went beyond the imposing frame of Wauseon's 6-foot-9 center Austin Rotroff.
The Indians came in as the district's top seed and the No. 1 ranked team in the state in Division II.
The Cougars led early on, and stayed tight throughout, but saw their season end with a 51-41 defeat.
"They are really good. They are 24-0 for a reason," Van Wert head coach Mark Bagley said after the game. "We had to shoot better than 30 percent tonight, and we didn't. To be within 10 is a testament to our kids; they never quit and they battled like crazy."
Wauseon has held its opponents to a mere 36 points per game this season. In addition to Rotroff, the Indians start a lineup that features size at every position. That size helped to turn the tide of a game that, early on, was played in favor of the Cougars.
Van Wert scored the opening bucket of the game when Nate Place posted up. Two possessions later, Place connected on a 3-point field goal, giving Van Wert a 5-4 edge. Senior Jacoby Kelly then drilled a three, and an Owen Treece turnaround jumper made it 10-8, Cougars, with 3:15 left in the first quarter.
Those were the last points that Van Wert managed until a Kelly triple nearly seven minutes of game clock later. By that point, Wauseon had run off 10 straight points. The Indians never trailed again.
"Jacoby hit a couple, and Nate hit a couple, but as the half wore on, we took some careless shots," Bagley said. "Not out of selfishness, but because they were trying to make plays. Give them credit; they are a great defensive team. There is a reason they only give up 36 points per game."
Though Wauseon pushed out to a 10-point halftime lead and extended to a 12-point margin early in the third, Van Wert fought back, getting started from the foul line. Blake Henry connected on 1 of 2 before Drew Bagley made back-to-back trips to the line, sinking 3 of 4. A Kelly bucket in the lane then preceded a driving bucket from Place that brought the Cougars to within seven at 32-25 and forced a Wauseon timeout.
"Going into the game, Coach Bags said we had no pressure; they had the pressure because they were undefeated, so coming in we had that mentality," Kelly said. "When they called that timeout, we had the momentum. They had to adjust. Unfortunately, we didn't adjust back."
The Indians went back to work on the inside, as 6-4 junior Levi Seiler scored on a baseline drive before Rotroff added a bucket in the low post. Seiler, who wound up with 16 points, finished off the quarter with a spinning drive to the hoop just before the buzzer to establish a 39-26 margin with only eight minutes left.
The Cougars (13-11) kept coming in the fourth quarter as Bagley employed a strategy of forcing Wauseon to the free throw line. The Indians missed enough of their tries to keep the door ajar slightly, and Kelly's three with 1:29 to play made it an 8-point game. That was as close as the Cougars were able to get, however.
"Our kids just kept on battling," Bagley said. "When you don't shoot it well, and we have some good shooters who didn't shoot well tonight, that makes it challenging."
The Cougars made 11 of 37 shots from the floor (29 percent), including 5 of 18 from 3-point range. Kelly led the way with 15 points in his final game for the Cougars. Place added 14. Kelly, Jonathan Lee and Thane Cowan each suited up for Van Wert for the final time.
Seiler's 16 points led all scorers while Trent Armstrong added 10. Rotroff scored 10 points while grabbing 17 rebounds himself. Van Wert collected 22 rebounds as a team.
Bagley said his Cougars were confident coming in.
"We expected to win," Bagley said. "There was no doubt in our minds that we could beat this team. They are really good and very well coached, and they play the right way. They will be a tough out in this tournament."