It’s real now.
There is no more talk of hopes, or dreams of what could happen. Norwalk has reached championship Saturday.
The Truckers (28-1) used a late third quarter surge, and held off a rally by Dayton Thurgood Marshall midway through the fourth quarter of Thursday’s Division II state semifinal in front of 9,226 fans at the Jerome Schottenstein Center on the campus of Ohio State University.
The end result was a 72-64 win over the Cougars (22-6), and up next for No. 2 Norwalk is Saturday’s 10:30 a.m. state championship game vs. No. 4 Columbus Bishop Watterson (26-2), the defending champions.
“It’s amazing,” said Jeff Thomas, who scored 20 points and grabbed nine rebounds for the Truckers. “At one point I was nervous, thinking we were down and needed to make a run. But then as we got on that run and got the lead back, I was so excited to know we had one more practice and one more game to play.”
After Norwalk opened up a 52-45 lead late in the third quarter, things again got dicey in the fourth quarter for a third straight time for the Truckers.
After a Grant Hull basket with 6:33 left in the game put Norwalk up 54-47, the Cougars scored seven straight points to tie the game with 4:35 left. Kaleb Cashen stopped the bleeding with a basket for Norwalk, but then Dwayne Chastain connected on a 3-pointer, and suddenly the Cougars were back on top at 57-56 with 4:03 left.
But in the biggest game in program history, there was no denying the trio of Thomas, Ben Haraway and Hull.
Thomas answered Chastain’s 3-pointer with one of his own — his third of the day — to put Norwalk right back on top at 59-57 with 3:36 left. Both teams then squandered chances on the next couple of possessions. The Truckers gained possession after another Chastain 3-pointer went out of bounds off a Cougars player.
With the ball back, Haraway came down at the other end and knocked in a short jumper with 2:03 left and was fouled. He converted the free throw, and Norwalk was back in control, up 62-57. From there, the Cougars fell apart, and it turned into a foul shooting contest for the Truckers.
Cashen split a pair of free throws with 1:37 left, and after a layup by Rachaun Martin made it 63-59 with 1:02 left, Haraway was fouled with 54.8 seconds left and knocked them both down.
Haraway then got a steal off a turnover by Martin, and gave it up to Hull, who put in two free throws to make it a 67-59 lead with 40 seconds remaining. He had four more free throws in the final 28 seconds as Norwalk salted away the win, and a trip to Saturday’s championship.
“Everybody said we were the team that didn’t belong here this weekend, when you have St. V’s (Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary), Watterson and Thurgood,” Norwalk coach Steve Gray said. “Norwalk is a small city and we were sort of the odd man out.
“And Thurgood is a great team, but we really did expect to win,” he added. “We have played the best of the best the last couple years, whether it’s in the summer in scrimmages or when we played teams from Mansfield, Toledo and Lorain. And Jeff and Ben have played at a high level in AAU, and once again, you win with players.”
Playing in the Final Four for the first time in program history — the only team of 16 there this weekend making its debut — the Truckers were never bothered by nerves of the bigger floor or arena from the very beginning.
Leading 7-6 a little more than two minutes into the game, Norwalk scored six straight points on baskets from Hull, Haraway and Jordan Johnson to take a 13-6 lead with 4:02 left in the opening quarter. The Cougars cut that margin to 17-14 by the end of the first, but the Truckers had set an early tone.
The Cougars took control for a portion of the second quarter, however, as the Truckers had no answer for 6-foot-8 Division I recruit Derrick Daniels. With the big center getting putback after putback against the Truckers’ undersized roster, Thurgood was able to go on an 8-2 run to open up a 26-21 lead with 4:01 left in the half.
But Norwalk again had the answer, and closed the half on a 9-4 run to tie the game at 30, setting the stage for Thomas’ third quarter push to give the Truckers control.
“You have to give Norwalk a ton of credit, I thought for the entire game, they were the aggressor,” Thurgood Marshall coach Darnell Hoskins said. “They continued to keep coming and continued to fight, and executed their game plan. Quite frankly, I thought the better team won and they deserved to win. It’s tough to say, but it’s the truth.
“They are a resilient bunch, and when we gave them a punch or two, they responded,” he added. “That’s what great teams do, they respond. (Norwalk) took our best shot and kept going forward and kept coming for it and believing and executing their game plan. We just didn’t get it done.”
After scoring 12 points and grabbing eight rebounds in the first half, Daniels had just one point and five rebounds in the second half.
“We asked Jeff really nicely at halftime if he’d box him out and rebound up,” Gray said of defending Daniels. “You know, when you say please and thank you to these kids, they really respond well. We challenged them, and did much better in the second half.”
Haraway added 20 points and eight assists for Norwalk, while Hull added 17 points and Jordan Johnson scored seven and grabbed four rebounds.
NOTES: With his eight assists, Haraway surpassed the 500-assist mark for his carer, making him the third player in Northern Ohio League history to finish with at least 1,000 points and 500 assists. He joins legendary players Jake Diebler (Upper Sandusky, 2005) and Nick Dials (Willard, 2003) in that group. … Thomas broke a 45-year old record at Norwalk with his 20 points, as his 543 points this season is the new mark. The previous record was held by Tom Diringer (534) in the 1968-69 season. … Thursday’s game was the first time the Cougars had lost in the state semifinals. In three previous trips in 1990, 2009 and 2011, Thurgood had won the semifinal and lost in the championship all three times.