Facing a 18-point deficit and staring down a 3-3 stretch over its last six games, Willard made an unbelievable comeback that will be talked about for a long time.
The Flashes — ranked No. 10 in the Division III Associated Press state poll — cut the lead to eight points after three quarters. Then they exploded for 26 points in the last eight minutes to top the Whippets, 78-73 at Robert L. Haas Gymnasium in one of the fiercest rivalries in Ohio.
"It means a lot to a lot of people on both sides," Willard coach Joe Bedingfield said. "It has been a rivalry for quite a while. It is a Tuesday night, and I thought we had a really good crowd on both sides. That is what it is about."
After being held to six points and no field goals in a road loss to Oak Harbor last week, senior Terry Baldridge went off for 24 points and 16 rebounds.
"It's Shelby," the 6-foot-8 Baldridge said. "It's our rival. It's always going to be a great atmosphere. In the first half, we just did not have it. We did not have that spark."
Willard (13-2) took its first lead of the game at 69-68 after Cooper Parrott made two free throws with 2:55 left. Trey Paxton made two more free throws to finish off an 8-0 Flashes run. TJ Pugh scored on the other end for the Whippets (13-2), but missed the free throw on the and-one foul. The Flashes milked the clock before Baldridge was fouled with 27.7 seconds left.
Baldridge made both free throws for a 73-70 lead and Shelby came up empty on the other end when Jackson Lewis — just into the game for the first time — missed a 3. Myles Pinkston was fouled and Whippets' coach Nathon Loney was then whistled for a technical foul. Pinkston missed both free throws, but Parrott split the technical free throws for a two-possession lead.
Paxton added two free throw makes for a 76-70 advantage with 16.3 seconds left. Pugh hit a 3-pointer for the Whippets on the other end, but Paxton and Austin Adelman each split two free throws to seal the improbable win.
"Coach told me to stop shooting so many 3s really," Baldridge said. "I had to get the ball inside. I am big and I am good inside. That is what I started doing."
The Flashes trailed 56-36 with 6:25 left in the third quarter when Willard made its initial push. Pinkston, Parrott, Adelman and Baldridge each scored as the Flashes drew within 56-44. Parrott added two free throws to cut the Shelby lead to 10 points for the first time since the 4:53 mark of the first quarter.
Camden Walter countered for the Whippets, but Baldridge scored twice — including a running jump shot from the foul line at the buzzer — to get Willard within 60-52 after three quarters.
Jonny Devito made two free throws to open the final eight minutes, but Baldridge hit a triple and Pinkston split two free throws to bring the Flashes within six points. The teams exchanged baskets before Baldridge scored and Parrott hit a 3 in transition to cut the Shelby lead to 66-63 with 4:54 left.
"We did not get the ball inside or do the things that we thought that if we did, we would be successful," Bedingfield said. "Give it to our kids. We never gave up. We talked at halftime that if we took the same steps last year — stay real positive — and we talked about working on our offense."
It was all Whippets early and often in the first half. Pugh hit back-to-back 3-pointers for an 8-2 lead early. Paxton countered with a 3-point play, but Shelby ripped off the next 15 points for a 23-5 lead with 3:20 left in the first quarter.
After settling in, the Flashes played even for the rest of the first quarter. Baldridge made two free throws to stop the Whippets' run. They were his only two points in the first 12-plus minutes of the game.
"We started out really slow and give credit to Shelby," Bedingfield said. "They are really athletic and an up-and-down team. They got after us right away. Their kids were ready to play. Our kids tried to run with them a little bit and got out of character."
Shelby led, 31-15 after the first quarter and buckets by Grant Gossom and Pugh were sandwiched around a 3-pointer by Grant Hiatt to give the Whippets a 38-15 lead just over a minute into the second quarter.
Shelby also had a 45-22 lead with 4:09 left in the second quarter after a triple by Devito. Willard kept in the game as Baldridge got his first bucket of the game on an offensive rebound then added a 3-point play. The teams traded baskets the rest of the quarter and a 3 from Parrott at the buzzer cut the Shelby lead to 51-33 at halftime.
"We got down 10 points at Oak Harbor last Friday with two minutes to play," Bedingfield said. "We had a shot to tie it up. Our kids do not quit fighting. They are experienced basketball players."
Pugh paced the Whippets with 30 points and nine rebounds while Cody Lantz and Gossom each added 12 points.
"We did more of a matchup zone," Bedingfield said. "We tried to man them up a little bit early on. We did not really stay in our defensive principles like we wanted to. We thought may be a matchup zone would be better suited."
Parrott backed Baldridge's big night with 22 points and seven rebounds while Pinkston scored 10 points. The Flashes went just six-deep the entire game, but made 26 of 37 free throws and held a 39-30 rebounding advantage in the win.
"We challenged Terry at halftime to get inside," Bedingfield said. "He really got after it. We wanted to get him touches. He had to be the guy to get the first touch. We play off of him."
Willard (4-2 SBC Bay) has little rest for the weary. They host Oak Harbor (9-2, 4-1) on Friday in a quick turn-around re-match. Oak Harbor topped the Flashes, 49-48 last Friday.
Jonny Devito 3-2—9, TJ Pugh 12-3—30, Cody Lantz 5-2—12, Grant Gossom 5-1—12, Jeremy Holloway 1-0—3, Grant Hiatt 2-0—5, Camden Walter 1-0—2. TOTALS 29-8—73.
Trey Paxton 2-6—10, Terry Baldridge 9-5—24, Myles Pinkston 3-4—10, Micah Dawson 2-0—5, Cooper Parrott 5-10—22, Austin Adelman 3-1—7. TOTALS 24-26—78.
Shelby 31 20 9 13 — 73
Willard 15 18 19 26 — 78
3-point FGs: (S) Pugh 3, Devito, Gossom, Holloway, Hiatt. (W) Parrott 2, Baldridge, Dawson.