Hanover’s Cam Fails, Colin Smith and Corey Muchmore (from left) celebrate as they walk off the floor after knocking off Mount St. Joseph 72-64 in Cincinnati and clinching the HCAC regular-season championship. (Staff photo by David Campbell)
Hanover’s Cam Fails, Colin Smith and Corey Muchmore (from left) celebrate as they walk off the floor after knocking off Mount St. Joseph 72-64 in Cincinnati and clinching the HCAC regular-season championship. (Staff photo by David Campbell)
CINCINNATI — Ranked in the Top 25 for the first time in over a decade and facing a hostile enemy crowd, Hanover’s men’s basketball team had plenty of reasons to be nervous when it took the floor at Mount St. Joseph on Wednesday.

But the 22nd-ranked Panthers showed no signs of jitters and never backed down, pulling away for a 72-64 win that not only avenged Hanover’s home loss to Mount earlier this season but also secured a Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference regular season championship.

“We’ve been trying to stay humble throughout the whole season,” said sophomore Cam Fails, who led Hanover with 22 points. “We knew this was going to be a tough game. We just got into the Top 25 and we knew that if we came in here and lost, we’d be right back where we were at. We wanted to stay right there. Like coach said before the game, it’s harder to stay at the top than to get to the top. We pride ourselves on that.”

The regular-season conference championship was Hanover’s first since the 2004-05 season, which was also the last time the Panthers won 20 games. Hanover will now be the No. 1 seed and host the HCAC Tournament when it starts on Friday, Feb. 24.

Mount St. Joseph (18-6, 13-4 HCAC) was the preseason favorite in the conference and showed it throughout much of the year, including a 76-73 win at Hanover on Jan. 11. Defending their home court, the Lions weren’t going to go down without a fight, even against a surging Panther squad that entered the game winners of five-straight and eight of their last nine.

Hanover (20-3, 15-2 HCAC) jumped out to an early 8-2 lead before Mount rallied to go ahead by four (22-18) with 5:15 left in the first half.

But the Panthers didn’t back down. After tying the game on a pair of Fails free throws and a Levi Buck drive into the lane, Hanover got five-straight points by Fails over the final two minutes to seize the lead, including a 3-pointer with a hand in his face just as time expired.

The quick burst at the end of the half allowed Hanover to take a 34-29 lead into halftime, something Hanover coach Jon Miller said was big.

“We had gotten up but we knew that Mount was going to make a run,” Miller said. “That last three minutes we got back, got a couple of stops and rebounded the ball ... We were probably a little bit fortunate that Cam makes that shot. I can’t say that was a drawn-up play, he just made a play. That’s why sometimes you just want to have good players.”

Hanover couldn’t build on its halftime lead and Mount rallied to go back on top on an Andrew Finley 3-pointer with 8:09 left in the contest. The two teams traded baskets over the next six minutes with the 12th and final tie of the game coming at the 2:11 mark and knotting the score 60-60.

Hanover took over from there and it came from an unlikely strength. While the Panthers have been very good this season, their free-throw shooting at times has been suspect. But on Wednesday, the Panthers hit 12-straight from the foul stripe over the final 3:43 and built as much as a 10-point lead (70-60) before settling for the eight-point win.

Overall, Hanover was 23-for-29 (79.3 percent) at the foul line for the game, something that brought a smile to Miller’s face.

“One of the real bugaboos that we’ve had is at the foul line and you know what they say about teams that miss free throws, it’s like dogs that chase cars; their life spans aren’t always great,” Miller smiled. “We missed some early in the second, but boy, how about Corey Muchmore stepping up there and making four big ones in a row. Levi (Buck) stepped up and made four in a row. We made 10 in a row in the last two minutes of the game and the guys did the same thing up at Anderson when they got that road win. Things like that you’re really proud about as a coach.”

Fails, who hails from Mason, Ohio, was 8-of-15 from the floor and 5-of-6 from the foul line for his 22 points. He also added six rebounds and two steals and Miller said the sophomore has emerged as a go-to player at crunch time.

“He’s a guy that never shies away from a big moment. I think he’s one of those guys that really gets better when the moment gets bigger,” Miller said. “You’ve got some guys that I call little big game guys and it’s hard to win consistently with those guys. He’s a guy that savors being in big moments and has done a good job.”

“We knew coming in that it was going to be a big crowd and we were going to get Mount St. Joe’s best shot,” Fails said. “Last year they gave it to us pretty good as well. We came in here with a chip on our shoulder and played basketball like we know how to.”

Muchmore, also a native of Cincinnati, scored 18 points and hauled down eight rebounds for Hanover while Buck scored 17 points. Wes McKinney, the team’s leading scorer on the season, posted a double-double of 11 points and 10 rebounds, including a baseline dunk in the second half.

Finley led Mount with 23 points and Jake Cropper scored 10, but the Lions shot just 43.4 percent (23-for-53) from the floor compared to 23-of-45 (51.1 percent) for Hanover. The Panthers also held a big 34-22 advantage in rebounding.

Mount St. Joseph junior Tyler Manaugh, a Madison Consolidated High School graduate, scored three points and had an assist in six minutes of action for the Lions.

After the game, Mount coach Toby Carrigan stopped by the Hanover lockerroom to congratulate Miller on his team’s championship. The two coaches were teammates at Hanover in the 1990s where they played for Mike Beitzel. They remain close friends today.

“For him to come over and congratulate us shows the class act that he is,” Miller said. “Toby is such an outstanding coach and he does such a great job with that team, but he’s an even better person. Somewhere down in Texas (Beiztel) is smiling and has to be proud.”

Hanover wraps up the regular season at Bluffton (13-11, 6-11 HCAC) on Saturday and then it’s back home to host the conference tournament for the first time in more than a decade.

Miller was in his first year as head coach at Defiance, one season removed from being an assistant at Hanover, when the Panthers last hosted the HCAC Tournament. Hanover has reached the NCAA Tournament since then, but had to do so on the road.

“This tournament will be a real fight. Rose is playing well, Anderson is playing well and can score it, Mount can score it,” Miller said. “I guess we’re glad it’s home but we’ve been pretty good on the road. But you work all year to try to get to this spot, to be able to host the conference tournament, and these guys have accomplished that and I’m proud of them for doing that.”

———

WEDNESDAY’S MEN’S GAME

at Cincinnati

No. 22 HANOVER 72

MOUNT ST. JOSEPH 64



HANOVER (20-3, 15-2 HCAC) — (g)Fails 22, (f)Muchmore 18, (g)Buck 17, (f)McKinney 11, Ratts 2, White 2, (g)Smith 0, Miller 0.



MOUNT ST. JOSEPH (18-6, 13-4 HCAC) — (g)Finley 23, (g)Cropper 10, Hertzel 8, (g)Edwards 7, (g)Henry 4, (f)Murdock 3, Myslowski 3, Hofmeyer 3, Manaugh 3, Goetz 0.



Halftime — Hanover 34-29. 3-Point Goals — Hanover 3 (McKinney 1, Fails 1, Buck 1), Mount St. Joseph 6 (Finley 3, Murdock 1, Myslowski 1, Manaugh 1). Rebounds — Hanover 34 (McKinney 10), Mount St. Joseph 22 (Cropper 5). Assists — Hanover 7 (Smith 2, Buck 2), Mount St. Joseph 13 (Murdock 3, Henry 3, Finley 3). Turnovers — Hanover 10, Mount St. Joseph 9. Total Fouls — Hanover 16, Mount St. Joseph 22. Free Throws — Hanover 23-29, Mount St. Joseph 12-14. Fouled Out — None.