“Put on a hat!” St. Marys boys basketball coach Dan Hegemier bellowed out at Nathan Wilker as the junior exited Memorial High School after a 67-59 win against the defending Division III state champ Ottawa-Glandorf.
It was the most forceful instruction Hegemier had to give out Friday night. As the St. Marys boys basketball team gains confidence, Hegemier can do less steering and let his athletes do their thing on the court.
The Roughriders improvised their way to a fourth straight win by answering every O-G rally with one of their own.
“Our confidence is growing,” Hegemier said. “When your confidence grows, you can do more on the floor and you don’t need your dumb coach to tell you what to do.”
Except for wearing a hat, of course.
With a backcourt of Wilker and senior Marquis Wilson slicing into the lane, the Riders found their opportunities off the dribble and in ways that weren’t always drawn up on the wipeboard.
“We were almost better off just playing the game instead of running sets or running halfcourt,” Hegemier said. “O-G is very well coached and they had all our sets down. We were scoring better doing a little bit more helter-skelter.”
Wilker led the Riders with 19 points. Wilker, who has broken out as a scorer the past two weeks starting with a 22-point game at Sidney in late January, hit 4 of 6 on 3-pointers and confounded O-G with his acrobatics in the lane and sharpshooting from outside. He had 13 at the half.
“Nathan started us off well,” Hegemier said. “He’s finishing off the season well. He’s a great athlete, a very skilled player and a very smart young man.”
Wilker also drew the assignment defensively of guarding O-G’s 6-7 standout forward Noah Bramlage. “He guards the other team’s best player,” Hegemier said. “That’s how it is and how it will be.”
Bramlage scored a game-high 20 points, but St. Marys limited the Titans’ main offensive weapon in the first half as he was just 1 of 2 from the floor.
St. Marys junior Quinn Zaerr added 13 points in the paint on an efficient 4 of 7 shooting from the floor and 5 of 6 from the charity stripe. Derek Jay sank the only two shots he took from the floor — both 3-pointers — and hit 4 of 4 from the free throw line for 10 points.
The free throw line was good to the Riders, who went 19 of 22 from the line. Hegemier said getting to the line and converting was key for an offense averaging just 51.4 points per game coming into the night.
“When we don’t play well, we don’t get to the line,” Hegemier said. “We have to get to the line.”
The Roughriders sizzled from beyond the 3-point arc, going 8 of 14 (57.1 percent). They shot 52.6 percent from the floor as a team on 20 of 38 shooting.
St. Marys led much of the night, eventually building a 43-33 lead with a run midway through the third quarter. Jay buried a 3-pointer and Isaac Fitzgerald hit three free throws after being fouled on a long-distance attempt with 2:47 left in the third.
O-G wouldn’t go away, however. Zach Kuhlman buried a 3-pointer to cut the lead to 46-40 heading into the fourth quarter. Nathan Wilker picked up his fourth foul on a charge call along the baseline and without their second ballhandler, O-G started to force turnovers with its pressure.
St. Marys turned the ball over on the first three offensive possessions of the fourth quarter and O-G tied the game with a Blake Blevins basket, an Alex Schroeder pull-up foul line jumper and a Kuhlman putback that made it 46-46 with 5:59 left in the contest.
The Riders’ Marquis Wilson floated in a baseline one-hander and drew a foul. He made the foul shot and to steady St. Marys.
The game really turned the Riders’ way when Zaerr hit two free throws to put St. Marys up 56-53 and then Bramlage missed a pair of free throws on the other end.
Isaac Fitzgerald found himself open on the left wing and stuck in the dagger with the trey that put the Riders up 59-53 with 1:32 left.
“Isaac loves to take those shots,” Hegemier said.
St. Marys hit 6 of 6 free throws down the stretch and Wilson added a runout lay-up to seal the Riders’ third WBL win.
St. Marys is now within a game of .500 at 9-10 and has won four straight games. They can reach double-figures in wins and get back to even when they host the McComb Panthers on Saturday night at 6 p.m. The Riders then host Coldwater on Monday in a rescheduled non-league game.
The Riders have beaten O-G two straight times. A year ago, St. Marys stunned the state-ranked and eventual Division III champs with a buzzer-beating basket by Austin James. This time, there were no last-second heroics needed. St. Marys ran away with the game in the closing minutes.
O- G came into the game winners of five of six games.
The game matched up Hegemier and O-G head coach Tyson McGlaughlin, who have won a combined four state championships.