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FORT WAYNE — A familiar face rejoined the Wildcat sideline earlier than expected Friday night.
Three weeks to the day since he left the hardwood for chemotherapy treatment, Whitko boys’ basketball head coach Rob Irwin was on the bench for the No. 2 Wildcats’ road game at Fort Wayne Wayne.
In late January, Irwin was diagnosed with a rare form of Leukemia. After a receiving intense treatment over a seven-day period, Irwin set out a goal to be back by the sectional round in the first week of March.
Still recovering, Irwin has been strides ahead of doctors and even his own expectations. Irwin notes he’s body has been very receptive to treatment and the urge to return was too much to resist.
“I couldn’t wait,” Irwin said with a smile. “I was driving my wife crazy. I just wanted to go sit in the gym.
“I feel good. My blood counts are actually better now than when I went into the hospital. Now, it’s just getting my strength back and doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”
According to Irwin, the time was right to return after missing just two games.
“I’m glad,” the Wildcat coach said. “I think it would have been hard if I wouldn’t have been in practice next week and my first time back would have been sectional.
“I’m pretty close to our kids and it makes a difference. Tonight, I think they were just glad I was back and the game was kind of secondary.”
Even with the boost of having their head coach back, the Wildcats struggled against the Generals.
Wayne (9-10) had a noteworthy night in the basketball history books. Senior Xavielle Brown entered the game needing one basket to join the Generals’ 1,000-point club.
It took Brown just 45 seconds to do so with the game’s first three-point bucket. It was the first of seven three-point baskets for Brown in the game.
“He’s a tough kid,” coach Irwin noted of Brown. “I knew he was big and strong but this is as good as I’ve ever seen him. If they play like that, they’re not going to lose many games.”
Together with a game-high 36 points from Brown, the Generals made 10 three-pointers as a team and ran away from Whitko 84-61.
“Wayne was flat out really, really good and shot the ball great and put us on our heels,” coach Irwin stated after just the third loss of the season for the Wildcats. “It was just one of those nights for them and one of those nights for us.”
The good shooting night went very well for Wayne. The Generals shot 34-of-52 (61 percent) from the field going better than 70 percent in both the first and third quarters.
The Wildcats (14-3) were able to take the lead twice in the first quarter despite shooting just 6-of-16 (38 percent) — and 21-of-52 (40 percent) for the game.
Irwin gave Whitko it’s last lead of the night with just under four minutes to go in the first. The junior point guard for Whitko hit a three-pointer putting the ’Cats up 14-13.
Leading the team with 31 points on the night, Irwin scored 17 in the first half.
However, the Generals used a 15-0 run at the end of the first quarter to bolster their double digit lead. Brown scored the first two of what were three consecutive possessions for Wayne with a three-pointer.
Whitko trailed by as much as 12 points, 26-14, in the first quarter but were able to mount a rally to start the second quarter.
The deficit dwindled to four points on a 10-2 Wildcat run to open the second quarter. Along with six points from Logan Irwin, Zac VanDeWater and Alex Stoddard both got into the mix. Both finished in double figures for Whitko — VanDeWater 11, Stoddard 10.
But a 20-point first half by Brown led the Generals on another late quarter run. Brown scored the last 11 points for Wayne in the second quarter and sent his team into the locker room with a 41-31 lead.
The highest scoring quarter of the night had Wayne outscore Whitko 27-20 in the third. The Wildcats trailed by as much as 22 points in the opening quarter of the second half.
Wayne shot 85 percent from the field in the quarter missing only two shot attempts. Despite, momentum building dunks from Logan Irwin and VanDeWater, Whitko wasn’t able to mount a rally coughing up the ball 16 times in the game.
Whitko’s grind to the end of the regular season continues tonight at Whitley County rival Churubusco before the IHSAA state tournament sectional brackets are drawn up Sunday night.