Jordan Johnson was told early in the week the defensive task he was facing.
"Nic (Williams) is a great player. So I knew I was going to have to play my best defense of the season," Johnson said after the Truckers beat Perkins for a third time this season — 55-45 in a Division II district championship game at Mansfield Senior High School.
Johnson helped lead a stingy defensive effort that limited three-time Sandusky Bay Conference Outstanding Performer Nic Williams to nine points, including just two points in the second half, which came on a layup with 30 seconds left.
(NOTE - To see pictures from the game, click HERE.)
With the win, Norwalk (25-1) faces Vermilion (19-7) in a double-area matchup at the Bowling Green State University regional at 6:15 p.m. Thursday.
It was just a 37-35 lead entering the fourth quarter, but Norwalk locked down, and did not allow the Pirates (21-4) to score for a span of 5:46 to end the third and carried over until just 3:02 was left in the game.
In that same span, Norwalk went on a 12-0 scoring run to open up a 49-35 lead with 3:20 left to put the game away.
“We had a drought, but give them credit, they guarded, especially in the half court,” Perkins coach Scott McVeigh said of Norwalk. “They were known coming in as a pressure team this year, but in the second half of the season especially, they've done just a great job of sitting down and defending in the halfcourt and getting stops. They guarded, they defended and made us work for every point we got.
“It was a low-scoring game, and it's important to get stops, and they did,” he added. “Against a quality team like that, the window of opportunity closes every time you don't score down on a trip, or throw the ball away on a turnover. They took advantage of that. They are good ... very good.”
Before Norwalk’s defense took control, no bigger swing took place than the final four minutes of the first quarter.
The Pirates connected on their first four shots, and were able to race out to a 13-4 lead at the 4:08 mark after Kyle Lewis scored easily inside. Williams had four of his nine points in that span as well.
But the Truckers settled down, and closed the half on a 10-2 run to only trail 15-14 entering the second quarter.
“It was a big spot,” McVeigh said. “We got the big early start, but they cut back into it one possession at a time. They didn’t lose their composure. We talked about a three-minute span in this game that would decide it, and we went almost six minutes without scoring, so that was it.”
Perkins also led 22-20 midway through the second, but Norwalk closed the half with six straight points to take a 26-22 lead. That set the stage for the defensive stand by the Truckers’ defense in the second half.
Ben Haraway opened the fourth quarter with a short jumper, then Breck Turner split a pair of free throws and Haraway connected on two free throws to give the Truckers a 42-35 lead with 6:43 left.
After a steal, Haraway then drove the length of the floor, drew a double-team and found Johnson wide open underneath on a backdoor pass for an easy layup and score that made it 44-35 with 5:50 left. Norwalk capped the run with another Haraway backdoor pass underneath, this time to Turner, then the senior guard added two more free throws to make it 49-35 with 3:20 left.
Lewis snapped the scoring drought for Perkins with a 3-pointer at the top of the key, but drew no closer than nine points the rest of the way.
Norwalk coach Steve Gray has seen a different team since the Truckers fell 63-61 at Ontario on Jan. 29, which snapped a 57-game regular season winning streak.
“They are dialed in, but especially defensively,” Gray said. “And I knew on Thursday … I didn’t know if we’d win, but I knew we’d play a great game. They were locked in, in terms of how we wanted to guard them, and they were asking all kinds of questions. That was a good sign for me.”
Haraway, who missed a potential game-tying shot in the Ontario loss, agreed with his coach.
“I think it made our team refocus on what the big picture was,” he said. “We’ve been locked in ever since then. Perkins is not an easy team to defend, so we really tried getting into Nic and frustrating him all game.
“Jordan did a really good job with that, and every time they tried to post him up, we had guys helping in the paint,” Haraway added. “So it was just about being aggressive.”
Haraway finished with 16 points, seven assists and five rebounds to pace the Truckers, while Thomas added 13 points and 14 rebounds. Grant Hull had seven points and eight steals.
“Jordan was just outstanding, but our second defensive star goes to Grant,” Gray said. “His help side defense was huge tonight.”
For Perkins, Lewis had 18 points and six rebounds, while Williams added nine points and six rebounds.
McVeigh acknowledged he is losing a very talented senior class that played an integral role in three straight SBC titles, back-to-back regional appearances and an overall record of 83-17.
“We talked about those seniors and their impact, and it will be missed,” he said. “You look at Nic and David (Doster) obviously as four-year guys, and Kyle and Chase (Green) as three-year varsity kids that will be missed. And look at Dale in just one year what he brought to our program. He had a huge impact.
“The first thing I did after the game was thank them for what they did for our school, community and basketball program,” he added. “I know it hurts right now, but it’s been a real pleasure to be able to coach a group of kids like that.”