Tigers close in on playoff berth
One down. One to go.
Northwestern entered Friday’s night Colonial League rivalry game against Northern Lehigh needing two wins in its final three games to punch its ticket to the district playoffs.
Thanks to their pressure defense and clutch shooting from senior Cayden Fitch, the Tigers are on the brink of that postseason berth.
Northwestern forced numerous turnovers - which led to points at the offensive end - and Fitch drilled three-pointers on three consecutive possessions at the end of the third quarter to propel the Tigers to a 45-27 victory.
“This was a business trip,” said Northwestern head coach Corey Cesare, whose team is now 10-10 overall and 8-8 in the league. “It doesn’t matter the quality of the opponent ... We can’t allow ourselves to not go out and execute and play our best basketball. That needs to be our focus every time we take the floor.
“One of the points of emphasis before the game was to create offense through our defense. At times we’ve had trouble scoring this season, so anytime we can force turnovers and get out and run and get some easy baskets, it’s good for us. And then (Cayden) stepped up and put the game out of reach by himself, hitting those three threes. He took them confidently like the three-year starter that he is.”
A scrappy Bulldog team hung around for nearly three quarters until Fitch took charge.
Treys from Northern Lehigh’s Ethan Kunkle and Chayce LoPinto midway through the third cut the margin to 32-22 and gave the host team some momentum.
But Del Tyler hit a shot in the lane for the Tigers before Fitch got hot from the perimeter. Fitch’s three bombs - all a few feet behind the three-point line with the last coming as the buzzer sounded - quickly extended the Northwestern lead to 19 points.
“We kept it close in the third, but then Fitch hits those three shots at the end of the quarter that took the wind out of our sails,” said Bulldog mentor Patrick Wanamaker. “He’s a helluva player and always has been. It’s hard to swallow, but the kid makes shots for a reason. And that’s what he did tonight.”
Before Fitch put the game out of reach, the Tigers relied on their defense to gain an early advantage.
Northwestern forced 12 first-half turnovers, which led to 12 points and a 29-16 halftime lead. And while the Tigers were busy making life difficult at the defensive end, they protected the ball on offense as evidenced by just one giveaway.
“We talked about that at our last game against Salisbury,” said Cesare. “If you look at the stats, the games we turn the ball over double digits, we’ve pretty much lost all those games. The games that we’ve turned it over less than double digits, we’ve pretty much won all those games. So, that’s where we need to be. We need to be taking care of the basketball and emphasizing execution and getting good shots.”
While the Tigers have two more shots (today at Brandywine Heights, and Tuesday against Catasauqua) to get their clinching win, Northern Lehigh (1-20; 1-15) has only one game remaining when it travels to Palmerton on Tuesday.
“I hate the whole moral victory speech, but we played (Northwestern) a couple weeks ago and we lost by (38) and it could have been worse,” said Wanamaker. “The kids bought in and they haven’t stopped working hard, they haven’t stopped growing, and they haven’t stopped getting better. To see that tonight on the floor is huge for us.”
SENIORS HONORED ... The Bulldogs honored their seniors - Bryce LoPinto, Ethan Kunkle and Devon Sosa - before the start of the game.
EVEN STEVEN ... This marks the seventh time Northwestern has been at .500 this season. The Tigers were 3-3, 4-4, 5-5, 6-6, 7-7, 8-8 and now 10-10.
THREES RULE ... The Bulldogs and Tigers combined to take 90 shots - 49 of them coming from three-point range and only 41 within the arc.
GAME LEADERS ... Fitch finished with 20 points. Chayce LoPinto topped Nolehi with eight points, while Nick Buskirk added seven points and 11 rebounds.
Cay. Fitch 7-1-2-20, Zimmerman 3-0-0-7, Wambold 0-0-0-0, Bollinger 2-1-2-5, Nelson 3-0-0-7, Hite 0-0-0-0, Wellings 0-0-0-0, Kozlowski 0-0-0-0, Marth 1-0-0-2, Tyler 2-0-0-4, Miller 0-0-0-0, Fitzgerald 0-0-0-0, Berk 0-0-0-0, Can. Fitch 0-0-0-0. TOTALS: 18-2-4-45.
Kunkle 2-0-0-6, Simms 1-0-0-3, B. LoPinto 0-3-4-3, C. LoPinto 3-0-0-8, Daubert 0-0-0-0, N. Buskirk 3-0-2-7, Sosa 0-0-2-0. TOTALS: 9-3-8-27.
Northwestern 11 18 14 2 - 45
Northern Lehigh 8 8 6 5 - 27
Three-pointers: Northwestern - Cay. Fitch 5, Zimmerman 1, Nelson 1; Northern Lehigh - Kunkle 2, C. LoPinto 2, Simms 1, N. Buskirk 1.