FOR a while late in Columbus East’s 73-69 victory Friday night against visiting Jennings County, the Panthers couldn’t find their big man, Brad Hunt.
The Olympians knew right where to find their big gun, Bryce Lienhoop.
After Jennings County stunned East with three consecutive 3-point baskets to turn a 62-53 fourth-quarter deficit into a tie game, Lienhoop took matters into his own hands with two drives to the basket.
The first gave the Olympians a 64-62 lead, but the Panthers answered back with a Tyler Vogel basket to tie the game again.
Lienhoop drove the paint again the next time down the floor, hitting the basket and drawing a foul on Hunt, who picked up with fourth with 2:30 remaining.
When East guard Parker Chitty stole the ball on Jennings County’s next possession and fed Connor Umphress for a lay-up, East was in good shape at 70-64.
Chitty closed it out with 47 seconds remaining when he missed the second of two free throws, but stole the offensive rebound away and hit an inside basket for a 73-66 lead.
It put the cap on a terrific high school basketball game.
Hunt, a 6-foot-9 senior, finished with a game-high 26 points, and for most of the contest, East had no answer for him. He worked his way free deep in the paint and his teammates delivered the ball, allowing him to turn and shoot over any defender.
However, in those closing minutes, the Panthers stopped going inside, perhaps swayed by the 10 3-pointers they had hit on the night.
“We have been doing drills like crazy, going over situations late in games,” said Jennings County coach Joe Hartwell, who has seen his squad come up short in some tight games.
Hartwell wasn’t as concerned about his offense as the Panthers’ defense.
“We couldn’t match up with (Umphress),” Hartwell said. “He is too big for our guards and too quick for our forwards. We just couldn’t stop him.”
Umphress finished with 25 points.
“My teammates did a great job getting me open,” said Umphress, who mixed a variety of jumpers with drives to the hoop. “But we knew it was going to be rough. We knew they would come out fighting.”
Hunt scored 15 points in the first half and continued his roll in the third quarter.
“Brad did a great job getting rebounds and scoring,” Umphress said. “He was scoring at will.”
In the second half, East coach Brent Chitty put his sophomore forward, Kevin Williams, on Hunt. The ensuing battle for position was entertaining, and rough.
“It definitely was a challenge,” said Williams, who had seven points and seems to be growing in confidence each game. “We just wanted to play good, hard defense on him and team ball.”
Brent Chitty was impressed with Hunt’s effort.
“He has such great length and such great touch around the basket,” Brent Chitty said of Hunt. “We couldn’t stop him, but Kevin is a battler. He has such great passion for the game.”
The game was full of passion wire-to-wire. East tried to creep ahead in the first half, opening a 14-2 lead in the first quarter, but the Panthers cut the deficit to 20-15 by the end of the quarter. Jennings County trailed 34-30 at the half and 53-48 after three quarters.
One of East’s problems was that Jennings County was tracking down all the long rebounds.
“There are no excuses for this team,” Brent Chitty said. “We have to go get the ball. We have to take control of our destiny.”
It wasn’t easy against a Jennings County team that looked better than its 8-7 overall, 1-3 Hoosier Hills Conference record.
East raised its mark to 11-2 and 4-1.
“You can see Jennings County coming,” Brent Chitty said. “They are getting better.”