SYRACUSE — What a difference four days and a healthy team makes.
After downing the NorthWood Panthers by a 51-44 margin Friday night, the Whitko Wildcats squared off against the same Panthers in Tuesday night’s opening contest of the class 3A Wawasee sectional.
With the team at full strength, the Wildcats used a smothering defense and hit 22-of-25 free throws to advance with a dominating 61-45 win.
“A big difference was that Logan (Irwin) was healthy,” Whitko coach Rob Irwin said. “When he’s healthy, he can play hard and he has a different gear than he has had the last three games.”
Whitko advances to a rivalry rematch in Friday night’s 6 p.m. semifinal. The Wildcats square off against the Columbia City Eagles (15-5) in a sequel to the regular season opener where the Eagles won on a last second three-point shot.
The Wildcats (16-5) took control from the outset, moving to a 6-2 lead on baskets by Irwin, Alex Stoddard and Max Elder.
The Wildcats hit on 7-of-14 shots from the field in the first quarter including two three-pointers from Irwin. Irwin’s second three came at the buzzer and put Whitko up 18-8 at the first stop.
Senior Zac VanDeWater added four points in the quarter including the first pair of a parade of Whitko converted free throws.
Irwin described the Wildcats’ success at the free throw line by saying, “The right guys were shooting them and fortunately tonight they were making them.”
Whitko hit its first 18 straight free throws and finished with 22-of-25 (88 percent) shooting from the stripe.
The Wildcat defense held the Panthers (14-7) to 3-of-14 shooting from the field in the first quarter and didn’t let up in the second period as they allowed NorthWood only five field goal attempts in the quarter, of which the Panthers converted only two.
The Wildcats put up 13 points in the second quarter, led by VanDeWater’s six, to take a 31-16 lead at the half.
“All of our guys played pretty good and I thought we guarded the heck out of them,” coach Irwin said. “It was hard for them to get a shot. In the first half when they did, it was one and done.
“Our defense was very good. Kory Wood didn’t score a point all night but he was into (NorthWood’s Michael) Paul all the time. If we guard people like that we are awfully hard to beat.”
The third quarter that saw both teams put up 13 points with VanDeWater notching a three and two free throws to lead the Wildcats with five and Elder a basket and two free throws for four.
Early in the fourth quarter the Wildcats took their largest lead of the game 52-30.
Whitko continued to convert free throws down the stretch to outscore the Panthers 17-16 in the final period for the 61-45 win.
Irwin led all scorers with 23 points with VanDeWater right behind with 19. Max Elder also broke into double figures with 13 points while Paul led the Panthers with 16 points.
The Wildcats out rebounded the Panthers 28-23 with Elder grabbing six boards and VanDeWater five for the Wildcats.