Van Wert senior Matt Bidlack puts up a shot from the low block during the fourth quarter on the Cougars’ 60-51 win over St. Marys on Friday night. Bidlack was one of four players to score in double figures for Van Wert. (Times Bulletin/Angela Stith)
By John Parent
Times Bulletin Sports Editor
VAN WERT — The Van Wert Cougars had been mired in a slump. Coming off a pair of losses last weekend, the Cougars hadn’t been shooting well.
On Friday night, in what was their regular-season finale, the Cougars regained their touch, draining 59 percent (20-for-34) of their shots in a 60-51 win over St. Marys Memorial.
For the Cougars and head coach Mark Bagley, this win felt good.
“There was a lot of soul-searching last weekend, and we talked about that a lot. When you shoot 29 percent for the weekend, it really brings to light the things you wrong,” Bagley noted. “It’s a confidence thing. It was part head and part physical.”
“We had a great week,” Bagley continued. “We took two days off and no one was in the gym, and we had three very spirited days of practice that were energetic, that were positive, and I felt really good about going into this game tonight.”
The Cougars used a balanced scoring attack, fueled by excellent ball-movement. Van Wert recorded assists on eight of its first 10 field goals.
“These guys have always moved the ball. These guys are very unselfish; our seven seniors, our younger guys, they’ve played together for a long time,” Bagley added.
St. Marys scored the first six points of the game, but it was all Cougars for the rest of the first half after that.
Senior Matt Bidlack got Van Wert on the board with a baseline jumper and added a bucket in the paint to make it 8-4 Memorial. Bidlack’s second basket was the start of a 7-0 spurt, which was capped by a Kyle Keber 3-pointer that gave the Cougars their first lead of the game.
After Quinn Zaerr converted a three-point play for the Roughriders, Nathan Stoller drilled a triple from the top of the arc to put the Cougars in front 12-11. Layups from Connor Holliday and Michael Smelser closed the first-quarter scoring with Van Wert sporting a 16-11 advantage.
The hot shooting for the Cougars got even hotter in the second quarter, as Stoller continued to fire away with great accuracy. He drained back-to-back 3-pointers and Van Wert lead by nine at 22-13. A Kyle Keber three and five points by Bidlack closed the quarter, with only a basket by Zaerr interrupting the string.
Van Wert took a 32-18 lead into the locker room.
Zaerr led the ‘Riders with 11 points in the first half, but he really asserted himself in the third period. The Roughriders came out shooting well, and when they did miss, Zaerr was there to grab an offensive rebound and put it home. The junior center scored 11 points in the third quarter alone, finishing with 27 on the night to go with 14 rebounds.
“He’s a little quicker than our big guys, and he had a lot more balance. We tried to go a little smaller there and have Matt (Bidlack) guard him a little bit, but (Zaerr) got going early. When he gets going, he’s a load,” Bagley continued.
Fortunately, Van Wert was able to hold the Roughriders to 7-for-21 shooting in the first half and 21-for-49 (43 percent) overall. St. Marys missed all 10 of its 3-point attempts.
“We let (Zaerr) get low block position and, once that happened, they have four guys that can shoot it on the perimeter,” Bagley noted. “It presented match-up problems. They’ve been shooting the ball really well. They’ve been making about 10 threes a game. We weren’t going to leave Jay, their freshman, we weren’t going to leave Wilker, so now we’ve got some match-up issues. We gave up one to stop, I think, four others.”
Though the Roughriders out-scored Van Wert 33-28 in the second half, the game never got closer than the final nine-point margin. Six different Cougars scored in the third period and Holliday’s six fourth-quarter points helped to seal the game. Holliday was one of four Cougars to score in double figures.
“They’re a very unselfish group, and you tell that by our averages. We have two guys (Bidlack and Holliday) averaging 11 (points per game) and a few guys averaging six or seven, and they share the ball. I think tonight we had four in doubles, and that’s huge for our team.”
“It was a total team effort tonight. I was very proud of our guys in how they bounced back from what was a brutal weekend.”
Van Wert closed the regular season with a 10-12 record overall and a 3-6 mark in Western Buckeye League play. The Cougars open sectional play when they take on Coldwater on Wednesday. The game will be played at St. Marys.
“(This win) is huge,” Bagley added about the momentum a game like this one can give his team going into tournament play. “We’ll take tomorrow off, then come in Sunday, Monday, Tuesday to get ready for Coldwater. I just told the guys, we can’t be down 16-2 this time, like we were last time when we came back and beat them by two. Coldwater is playing very well. They’re very athletic, they’re very strong and aggressive. We’ll have to play well to win next Wednesday.”
Score by quarters
St. Marys 11 7 19 14- 51
Van Wert 16 16 17 11- 60
St. Marys (51)
Wilson 9, N. Wilker 4, Fitzgerald 4, Jay 2, Zaerr 27, Z. Wilker 0, Fenwick 2, Young 0, Knous 0, Zink 2
Van Wert (60)
Smelser 5, K. Keber 13, Bidlack 11, Holliday 13, Myers 0, Wortman 4, Stoller 14, N. Keber 0, Moreland 0, Keirns 0, Henry 0