Southwestern coach Andy Firth catches a word with senior forward Tristan Embs (above, 14) during a break in the action at Tuesday night’s Class 2A Sectional quarterfinal matchup with North Decatur in Versailles. Injured senior guard/forward Gunnar Henry (below), the Rebels’ leading scorer before he went down with a midseason torn ACL looks on anxiously from the Southwestern bench late in the Rebels’ 68-58 loss to the Chargers. (Staff photos by Mark Campbell)
Southwestern coach Andy Firth catches a word with senior forward Tristan Embs (above, 14) during a break in the action at Tuesday night’s Class 2A Sectional quarterfinal matchup with North Decatur in Versailles. Injured senior guard/forward Gunnar Henry (below), the Rebels’ leading scorer before he went down with a midseason torn ACL looks on anxiously from the Southwestern bench late in the Rebels’ 68-58 loss to the Chargers. (Staff photos by Mark Campbell)
VERSAILLES - A slow start by Southwestern combined with a huge night at the free throw line by North Decatur was just enough to oust the Rebels from the IHSAA boys basketball state tourney in their sectional opener Tuesday night at South Ripley.

The Rebels (5-17) staggered out of the gate to trail 13-9 at the end of the first quarter and 30-21 at halftime. Southwestern never found a rhythm offensively until a frantic fourth quarter while North Decatur (5-16) did just enough to maintain a comfortable cushion for much of the second half en route to the quarterfinal win.

"We needed to have the energy that we had at the end of the game to start the game and it just wasn't there," Southwestern coach Andy Firth said. "We were back on our heels a little bit. But it's the sectionals and it happens.

"The bottom line is we put them at the free throw line. In the first half they took 14 free throws and we took four," Firth noted. "The difference in that is they were making us take tough shots and make tough decisions and we were letting them take uncontested shots and they got rolling. The free throw line was bad for us and good for them."

The Chargers put on a exhibition at the foul stripe all night, making 29-of-32 attempts including 14-of-14 in the first half. Southwestern kept North Decatur off the foul line in the third quarter but the Chargers still responded with a 16-point quarter as 6-foot-2 senior guard John Hammersmith knocked down five field goals to go with the 10-of-10 free throws he had made in the first half en route to a game-high 29-point night.

"We scouted North Decatur and we told our kids Hammersmith had a hard time going right but we let him go left," Firth said, "and when he went left he either scored or we fouled him and he hit his free throws. He had one hell of a game."

Offensively, other than the Rebels' tentative start, Firth was pleased with Southwestern's ability to score points. The Rebels knocked down 10 3-pointers to go with 11 two-point field goals and outscored the Chargers 52-39 from the field. Still, North Decatur's 29-6 advantage at the foul line proved too much to overcome.

"We were attacking the rim on offense and they just did a really nice job of hammering the ball into the post and the only answer we had was fouls," Firth said. "Coach (Kyle) Nobbe had a great game plan and I thought we had a great game plan, too, but we didn't execute it. When you put a kid at the free throw line like Hammersmith who shoots them so well, there's just not much you can do but stop fouling him and we never could do that. We didn't play to his weaknesses and we gave him his strengths."

Firth said Southwestern's inability to execute efficiently on offense until the final stretch linked back to the Rebels' tentative minutes at the beginning of the game. The Rebels actually led 5-4 midway through the opening quarter but that fell far short of the message he wanted his team to send from the outset.

"When you walk into the sectional you've got to come out and punch the other team in the face - really, really fast and really, really hard," Firth said. "And I think what happened with us is we didn't punch them in the face and they didn't really punch us in the face. They eventually made a run that made us panic and as soon as we panicked we made quick decisions and we made bad choices. We made too many quick decisions and we panicked and I think by the time we realized we could settle down and do the things we could do, it was in the fourth quarter and we were coming from behind and running out of time."

Southwestern's best quarter was the fourth when the Rebels threw caution to the wind and started attacking the basket and finding open shooters for 3-pointers. Mackenzy Withered and Darius Whiston-Spegal combined for five 3-pointers in the fourth and Tristan Embs hit a sixth trey as Southwestern erased all but two points of a 10-point Charger lead to trail 60-58 on a trey by Withered with 48 seconds left.

"We were very aggressive and we weren't hurried and that makes a big difference. Sometimes when you're aggressive you make mistakes but we didn't do that. We were getting great penetration and the kick-out and our guys were hitting the shots," Firth said of the late comeback. "We started just playing basketball and not caring about making mistakes. We started caring about making plays. In the beginning I think we were too worried about making mistakes and it cost us some bad decisions. But a lot of that had to do with what they were doing defensively."

With its lead whittled to two, North Decatur once again used free throws for maximum effect when senior forward Jason Kirchhoff hit 6-of-6 at the foul line in the final 46 seconds to stave off the Rebel rally and advance to play tourney host South Ripley on Friday.

In addition to Hammersmith's 29, Kirchhoff added 11 and Lecher scored nine for the Chargers. Whitson-Spegal, who fouled out with under a minute to play, led Southwestern with 19 points while Withered scored 13 and Nick Wyne and Embs had seven points each.

The Rebels lose six seniors from this year's team including Whitson-Spegal, Wyne, Withered, Zach Westerfield and Stephen Howell along with injured teammate Gunnar Henry, who led the team in scoring until he tore an ACL at midseason.

Henry dressed for Tuesday's game - his last as a Rebel - although he spent all but Southwestern's final possession on the bench wearing a rigid leg brace. But with the Rebels trailing by 10 and under 10 seconds left, Henry was inserted into the lineup and managed to get off one lightly contested 3-pointer that rimmed out to close out his high school but maybe not his basketball career.

"I think Gunnar can play at the next level," Firth said. "He can still have some optionsto play again after this injury."

Firth said Henry and the rest of his seniors will be missed but the team has a pretty good nucleus to build on for next season.

"These are good kids, they're good seniors and good people and they have been a pleasure for me to coach for the past three years," Firth said. "We've got some good kids coming back but to get where we want to be it has to all start in the summer. We'll get as many kids out as we can for the summer and go from there."

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BOYS CLASS 2A SECTIONAL 45

Semifinals

at Versailles

SHAWE 38, OLDENBURG 34



Southwestern 9 12 14 23 - 58

North Decatur 13 17 16 22 - 68

Southwestern (5-17) - (g)Whitson-Spegal 19, (g)Withered 13, (f)Embs 7, (f)Wyne 7, (g)Westerfield 6, Howell 4, Perry 2, Brooks 0, Hartman 0, Henry 0.

NORTH DECATUR (5-16) - (f)Hammersmith 29, (f)Kirchhoff 11, (g)Lecher 9, (c)Geis 6, Meyer 5, (g)Johnson 4, Koors 4, Hocker 0, Wallpe 0, Badgley 0.



3-Point Goals - Southwestern 10 (Whitson-Spegal 3, Withered 3, Westerfield 2, Wyne 1, Embs 1), North Decatur 3 (Hammersmith 1, Meyer 1, Lecher 1). Total Fouls - Southwestern 26, North Decatur 14. Free Throws - Southwestern 6-8 (75%), North Decatur 29-32 (91%). Fouled Out - Southwestern: Whitson-Spegal. Next Game - Southwestern's season ends. North Decatur plays South Ripley in the sectional semifinals Friday.