As his team closed the final seconds of the third quarter on a 7-2 scoring run, Norwalk guard Ben Haraway leaped off the bench with three fouls and instinctively tried to check himself in.
The junior was promptly lassoed back to the bench by head coach Steve Gray, but Haraway couldn't wait to get back into Saturday's non-conference showdown against Toledo Rogers.
In front of a near-capacity crowd to see the two Division I teams with multiple Div. I college recruits on the floor, the Truckers broke open a tight game and put together an impressive 70-55 win over the Rams.
Norwalk improved to 14-0 overall, and pushed its winning streak in the regular season to 35 games. The Rams, who entered the game averaging 88 points per game, fell to 8-4.
“I just thought I was going in, thinking it was an offense/defense sub … I don't know,” Haraway said of his itch to get back in the game. “I just got a little too excited. We're all excited, but we have to have a short memory and can't celebrate this one too much.”
Rogers had also broken 100 points in a game four times this season, with an offense that relies on creating turnovers off full-court pressure. And while the Truckers finished with 15 turnovers, few were created off the Rams' pressure defense.
“They really like to get into you, so you have to make sure you don't crossover dribble against them, because it's easy for them to create steals,” Haraway said. “You just have to be smart with the ball.”
After Bethune-Cookman recruit Tony Kynard cut the Norwalk deficit to 44-42 with 2:29 left in the third quarter, the Truckers promptly went on a 20-3 scoring run to put the game out of reach.
Jake Fetherolf scored a bucket and a free throw, and was followed by back-to-back baskets by Jeff Thomas and Damius Peacock to make it a 51-44 game entering the fourth quarter.
The run continued early in the fourth as Fetherolf and Trey Hallock sandwiched two more baskets by Thomas, putting Norwalk up 59-45 with 5:06 left. Off assists from Haraway, Hallock and Fetherolf each added baskets inside and suddenly a tight, hyped matchup was 64-45 with 3:34 left.
“I think we wore them down a little bit. Defensively, we were pretty darn good,” Gray said. “Benny on Kynard, and Grant Hull on (Bethune-Cookman recruit Clemmye) Owens, we pride ourselves on being able to defend.
“I think that along with, we made the extra pass, we attack the basket … and that was Jeff Thomas' best game of the year by far.”
Rogers coach Earl Morris said once his team got down by three possessions, they tried doing too much to compensate. The Rams had only lost to one other Ohio team entering the game, falling 71-69 to Columbus Northland, ranked No. 1 in Division I.
“We got erratic and started doing things we weren't capable of doing,” Morris said. “We missed too many easy shots and we started going individually one-on-one. That hurt us. We're not that good of a team to go one-on-one.”
Rogers did not have a lead in the game until the 3:13 mark of the second quarter when it went up 22-20. Moments later, Rogers held a 27-22 lead with 1:09 left in the half, but the gam ultimately swung in those 69 seconds.
As Haraway stepped to the line for a pair of free throws, Morris was hit with a technical foul. Haraway proceeded to connect on three of the four free throws, and Peacock scored a basket to tie the game. Thomas then scored two more baskets for a 32-27 lead before Rogers' Omari Hicks closed the half with a deep 3-pointer to make it 32-30 at the break.
Thomas finished with 19 points and five rebounds on 7 of 13 shooting, while Haraway added 14 points, five assists and four rebounds. Fetherolf added 14 points and eight rebounds, while Grant Hull scored 10 points and Trey Hallock added nine points and eight rebounds, leaving the Truckers just a point shy of all five starters in double-figures.
“They're pretty good. I'll let everyone in on a secret … good coaches have good players, and as long as I have good players I think I'll be pretty smart,” Gray quipped. “I have to say, Trey looked at Coach (Reid) Shoop and told him to put Damius in, because he would rebound for us.
“Damius competed and played with composure. This is a kid who doesn't get a whole lot of minutes some nights. That's just the type of team we have, that Trey as a captain understood what we needed and sacrificed himself for the good of the team.”
Facing Rogers was just part one of the Division I battle tests. After traveling to Sandusky Friday in a Northern Ohio League game, Norwalk will host Toledo Whitmer (11-2), ranked No. 3 in Div. I, on Saturday. Whitmer handed Norwalk its only loss dating back to last season, a 40-32 setback in a regional semifinal that was vacated last month because of sanctions.
“I think the anticipation and intensity, it's going to go up another two notches,” Gray said. “It's going to be a different game, very methodical. There won't be 60 points put up next week.
“I'd like to thank the Norwalk community for the support tonight. We're going to play hard Friday at Sandusky, and we hope to see everyone back here next week, because this was a heck of a lot of fun.”