By DAVE HANNEMAN
Jim Rucki doesn’t count moral victories in his career win total.
But if he did, Friday’s game with Toledo Whitmer would be a worthy candidate.
Down one key player before the game started, another saddled with early foul trouble and facing a talented team ranked No. 4 in the state, Findlay scratched and clawed and battled from one end of the floor to the other before falling just short of Toledo Whitmer, 50-46, in a Three Rivers Athletic Conference matchup at the FHS Gymnasium.
“I could not be prouder of our effort and the way we competed,” Rucki said. “We talked before the game about not backing down. We said, ‘Don’t let these guys come in here and push you around, which they are going to try to do,’ and we didn’t.
“I thought our guys stood toe-to-toe with them.”
Ricardo Smith had a game-high 20 points in helping Whitmer (12-3, 7-2 TRAC) stay a game back of Toledo St. John’s (13-3, 8-1) in the league standings. The 6-foot-2 senior guard, who will play college ball for the University of Findlay, scored 16 of his 20 points in the first half, including back-to-back 3-pointers to give Whitmer a 22-20 lead and a left-handed scoop layup off a steal that put the Panthers up 24-20 at the half.
Nigel Hayes, who has signed a national letter of intent with Wisconsin, did not score a single point in the first half. But the 6-7 senior scored nine points in the fourth quarter and 14 in the second half to rally the Panthers from 37-31 and 39-33 deficits.
“After we got the lead, they put him down on the block where he is almost unstoppable,” Rucki said.
Juniors Adam Twining (17), Austin Gutting (16) and Michael Clark (11) combined for 44 of Findlay’s 46 points. The Trojans are 8-6 overall, 5-3 in the league.
With 6-7 senior forward Joseph Davidson home with the flu, the Trojans were without their tallest player and missing an excellent defender who averages just less than 10 points and just more than six rebounds a game.
Another potential problem arose when Twining was whistled for two fouls in the first 3:08 of the game.
Instead of folding the tents, though, Findlay made a stand.
Mixing aggressive, trapping defense with some good offensive execution, Findlay ended the first quarter with a 9-0 run to go up 13-10. Converting 8 of 9 free throws in the third quarter gave the Trojans a 35-31 lead, and Clark’s lay-in off an out-of-bounds play and Twining’s driving layup gave Findlay its 37-31 and 39-33 leads early in the fourth quarter.
Findlay was still on top by six (42-36) when Gutting converted a 3-point play with 5:02 left. Two more free throws by Gutting gave Findlay its last lead, 46-44, with 1:07 to play.
Luke Hickey then answered with Whitmer’s only 3-pointer of the second half. After a Findlay miss, Chris Parker made one of two free throws with 13.5 seconds on the clock. Parker missed the second shot, but Whitmer won control of the ball in a scramble for the rebound, and Hayes hit two more fouls shots with 9.5 seconds left.
“(Findlay) outplayed us and outcoached us all evening long,” said Whitmer coach Bruce Smith.
“He (Rucki) threw the kitchen sink at us. We were not prepared for the 1-3-1 (zone), the 2-3, the man (defense) back and fourth, the trap.
“We are very, very fortunate to get out of here with a win. Fortunately the game was 32 minutes long and not 28.”
Smith, who guided Whitmer to a spot in last year’s Division I state championship and achieved his 350th career win earlier this season, felt big-game experience was pivotal.
“I think a younger team might have panicked when we were 39-33 down,” Smith said. “Their crowd was going nuts, and there are no friendly civilians here, you know. But we have guys who played 27, 28 games last season on a bigger stage than here, and I think that (experience) was a big factor in helping us win.”
Because moral victories don’t count, Findlay earned only an “L” in the record book on Friday. But Rucki feels there’s still plenty to be gained.
“We have to make sure this is something that defines our season, something we look back on at the end of the year and say, ‘That’s the game where we stepped up and elevated our level of play,” Rucki said.
“We faced adversity, but we competed hard against a great team. If we take that attitude into every practice and into every game we will have success, we will be tough to beat.”
In Friday’s opener, Findlay’s junior varsity got excellent balance from Grant Niswander and Joey Hammond (13 points), Noah Kasmarek (11) and Grant McKinniss (10) in beating Whitmer’s reserves 58-50. Marcus Elliott had a game-high 20 points for Whitmer.
TOLEDO WHITMER (12-3, 7-2)
Hickey 3-5 0-0 7, Parker 0-2 1-2 1, Smith 8-15 0-0 20, Ashe 3-7 2-2 8, Hayes 4-11 6-7 14, Frisch 0-2 0-0 0, Na. Holley 0-0 0-0 0, Erme 0-0 0-0 0. TOTALS: 18-42 19-11—50.
FINDLAY (8-6, 5-3)
Miller 1-3 0-0 2, Clark 4-12 2-2 11, Twining 5-9 6-7 17, Gutting 5-9 6-7 16, Kairys 0-0 0-0 0, Niswander 0-0 0-0 0, Gobrecht 0-1 0-0 0, Fisher 0-0 0-0 0, Buford 0-0 0-0 0. TOTALS: 15-34 14-16—46.
Whitmer 10 14 7 19 — 50
Findlay 13 7 15 11 — 46
3-Point GOALS: Toledo Whitmer 5-16 (Hickey 1-3, Parker 0-2, Smith 4-8, Frisch 0-1, Hayes 0-2); Findlay 2-9 (Miller 0-2, Clark 1-5, Twining 1-1, Gobrecht 0-1).
rebounds: Toledo Whitmer 20 (Hayes 6, Ashe 6); Findlay 27 (Gutting 7, Clark 5, Twining 4, Miller 4).
turnovers: Toledo Whitmer 10, Findlay 15.
junior varsity: Findlay, 58-50.