By Josh Brown
WEST MILTON — Three chances with the ball to tie or take the lead.
Three times the Red Devils found ways to keep their lead.
Tippecanoe has made a habit of that during its now seven-game winning streak.
And while the Devils (9-4) went cold throughout most of the fourth quarter and the county rival Bulldogs went on an 11-0 run to draw back to within two points, Tippecanoe was able to turn away every game-tying opportunity and hold on for a 36-34 victory over a hungry Milton-Union team Saturday night.
After holding a 15-point lead in the third quarter, Tippecanoe saw its lead shrink to 11 until Zach Wildermuth scored a bucket in transition to make it a 36-23 game with roughly six minutes to play. From that point on, though, the Devils went 0 for 6 from the floor and missed a pair of front ends of one-and-ones — and Milton-Union got all of the rebounds.
“We just flat out didn’t shoot well — but we’ve talked before about how even if we’re not shooting it well, we can always defend and rebound and hustle and play with grit and determination. And we did that again,” Tippecanoe coach Joel Visser said. “It was ugly. They packed it in inside, we struggled to finish inside, and we couldn’t hit outside shots to pull them out to guard us.
“This is a rivalry game with a lot of tradition, and it’s great to get out of here with a win. That was the goal.”
After a few near misses and a lot of disappointments this season, meanwhile, Milton-Union (0-10) could’ve hung its collective head and allowed itself to be beaten — especially after only scoring one field goal in the first quarter, falling behind 12-2 early. But on a night where head coach Rusty Berner and four others were inducted into the school’s athletic hall of fame, that is not what the Bulldogs did.
“I couldn’t be more proud of our effort for four quarters,” Berner said. “We knew we had to grind it out and make it an ugly game. Defensively, we made it difficult for them to score, and we rebounded the ball in the second half.
“We finally saw that moment of belief in the kids’ eyes that we’d been waiting to see. Tonight, we buckled down defensively and wouldn’t go away. I couldn’t be more proud of our effort and our fight.”
Tippecanoe’s defense held the Bulldogs to 1 for 6 from the field and forced eight turnovers in the first quarter, though, and things didn’t change much in the second, either. Wildermuth and Joe Tesch each had seven points at halftime, with a Wildermuth-to-Jakob Prall-to-Tesch fast break capping off a 22-10 first half for the Devils.
An Aaron Hughes 3 early in the third quarter gave the Devils their biggest lead at 27-12 — a familiar position to be in after Friday night’s 57-47 victory over Kenton Ridge.
“We were up by 15 against Kenton Ridge and struggled down the stretch,” Visser said. “We got a little complacent last night, so we wanted to keep attacking, to continue to play to win and not just play not to lose.”
The Devils still held an 11-point lead going into the fourth at 28-17, and an both teams exploded offensively — relatively speaking — in the first two minutes of the final quarter, with Tippecanoe building a 36-23 lead.
But the Devils would not make a shot the rest of the way, and a Blake Smith free throw and a transition bucket by Zach Vagedes cut it to 10 again, then Tommy Smith hit a pair of free throws after the Bulldogs drew a charging call. Vagedes scored on another fast break after a defensive stop, and Blake Smith found Eric Swartz open inside to make it a 36-32 game with 2:50 remaining.
“Our biggest thing coming in was that we had to play hard for four quarters, to forget what was on the scoreboard and just play. And I felt we did that,” Berner said. “We missed some opportunities early in the game, but we kept hanging around and getting stops.”
A jumper by Blake Smith made the score 36-34 with 2:27 remaining, and Tippecanoe went into slowdown mode to chew some time off the clock. But Milton-Union got another stop and got the ball — only to miss a potential game-tying shot with 1:45 to play. The Bulldogs forced a turnover with 45 seconds left, only to turn it back over. The Devils missed the front end of a one-and-one with 7.6 seconds left and Milton-Union got the rebound, but the Bulldogs turned it over one last time in their rush to get it back the other direction.
Tippecanoe missed one last front end with 1.8 seconds left, and a desperation full-court heave fell well short.
Wildermuth finished with a game-high 11 points, four rebounds and three assists, Tesch had nine points and five rebounds and Prall, Adam Grieshop and Casey Kronour all had four points each to lead the Devils, who host Indian Lake Tuesday.
“The bottom line is that this team is resilient,” Visser said. “We were missing our starting center, Carter Mann, tonight. Last night, we were without Nate Shirley. Jakob Prall missed a few games early in the season. Through it all, though, this team has found ways. These kids play with grit and tenacity, and they always play hard.”
Blake Smith led the Bulldogs with 10 points, six rebounds and two assists and Eric Swartz added eight points and five rebounds. Vagedes and Blake Ullery each had four points, while Tommy Smith and Joey Swafford each had three. Milton-Union is also at home Tuesday, hosting Preble Shawnee.
“We had a lot of former players and coaches here for the hall of fame ceremony tonight, and we told the kids to just make them proud of our effort,” Berner said. “And that’s what they did. I couldn’t be more proud of the fight and effort they showed tonight.”
Contact Josh Brown at (937) 552-2132, or follow @TroyDailySports on Twitter.