COLUMBIA CITY — The traditional Thanksgiving Eve rivalry game between Whitko’s and Columbia City’s boys did not disappoint last Wednesday — unless you were an Eagle fan.
In the Whitko’s boys’ last-ever game in the Donald S. Weeks Gymnasium in Columbia City, the Wildcats came away with a two-point, 60-58, victory — their third win in a row against Columbia City under the direction of head coach Eli Henson.
“I don’t know what it is, but our boys come out with a lot of confidence for this game,” Henson said. “This is the biggest crowd we’ll play in front of all year — you would think they’d be nervous for it — but they come out here with ice in their veins.”
Fans were captivated by the back-and-forth affair, as there were at least eight lead changes and a nail-biting ending.
From the 6:04 mark in the third quarter, Columbia City led for almost the entire second half. The Wildcats trailed 53-46 before scoring 12 unanswered points with 2:21 left in the game to take the lead for good.
The run started with a 3-pointer by Drake Lewis, followed by a traditional three-point play by Brett Sickafoose. Spencer Sroufe, Whitko’s 6-foot-7 giant, grabbed a rebound and went coast to coast, scoring to give Whitko a 54-53 advantage.
Lewis knocked down a pair of free throws to lead 56-53 with less than 43 seconds left in the game.
With 33 seconds left, Columbia City missed a 3-pointer to tie the game, and Sroufe went on to connect with two free throws, extending Whitko’s lead to 58-53 with 29 seconds on the clock — making it a two-possession game.
Columbia City stand-out Mitchell Wilson wasn’t ready to give up yet, drawing a foul on a 3-point shot. Wilson made two of the three free throws to narrow Whitko’s advantage to 58-55.
Lewis scored another free throw with 9.1 seconds left, making it a two-possession game again.
With 1.1 seconds left, Wilson nailed a 3-pointer, but it was too little, too late for the Eagles, who fell 60-58.
“We got in situations where we were down by 5, 6, 7 points, and we just kept fighting,” Henson said. “From a coaching standpoint, that was my greatest takeaway from this.”
Sroufe asserted his dominance under the basket in the first quarter, slamming down a dunk that sparked a 3-pointer by Lewis to give Whitko a 17-15 lead with a minute left in the first quarter.
Columbia City’s Bryce Taylor answered with a bucket to tie the game, but Sroufe easily nabbed an offensive rebound and scored to give Whitko back the lead with 17 seconds left.
It appeared the Wildcats would escape the opening quarter keeping the lead away from Columbia City, but a mishap in uniform numbers put a damper on the Wildcats’ momentum.
Wilson scored a basket and drew a foul with 8.6 seconds left in the quarter, tying the game. Whitko substituted a player into the game whose uniform number was different than his number in the scorebook, resulting in a technical foul. Wilson ended the quarter by connecting with both free throws, and the Eagles led 21-19.
Wilson opened the second quarter with another traditional three-point play, but with 7:15 left in the half, he drew his second foul and was temporarily retired to the bench.
Whitko’s Sickafoose and Columbia City’s Michael Sievers traded baskets during a two-minute stretch in the second quarter. Sickafoose scored on a field goal and a 3-pointer, and Sievers had three field goals, giving Columbia City a 30-24 advantage with three minutes left in the half.
Whitko’s Micah Cokl stepped up to hit a 3-pointer of his own, and Sroufe hit three shots in a row to give Whitko a 33-30 lead at halftime.
Wilson, who ended the game with 31 points, scored seven of Columbia City’s 14 third-quarter points, and the Eagles held Whitko to just seven points. Columbia City held Sickafoose scoreless and limited Sroufe to just one free throw.
Whitko came back with a vengeance, as Sickafoose opened the quarter by scoring eight points in the first 2:30. Then Whitko went on its fourth-quarter run to come away with the win.
Sroufe and Sickafoose led the Wildcats in scoring with 20 and 19 points, respectively, and Lewis added 14. The players who didn’t score many points still made quality contributions, Henson said.
“I’m so pleased with how they played,” Henson said. “Even if they were not hitting, they were still doing something to help out.”
After Wilson’s 31 points, Columbia City’s Cam Scott had eight points and Sievers recorded seven.
“Mitchell Wilson is probably the best player in the area,” Henson said. “Our whole plan was to take him out of the game. We didn’t do a very good job of that, but in the fourth quarter, we did do a good job of limiting his touches.”
With construction on the new Columbia City High School underway, the Donald S. Weeks Gymnasium will soon be a piece of the past of CCHS basketball. Whitko is not scheduled to play in the gym ever again, as the Wildcats host next year’s game, and the new school will be open in 2020.
“I love this gym. You can pack it up,” Henson said. “You have to enjoy this atmosphere and you have to love playing in front of this crowd.”
Columbia City played again on Saturday, traveling to Warsaw and falling 56-35. The Eagles host Northrop on Friday.
Whitko’s boys had a nine-day break and travel to Wabash on Friday for a Three Rivers Conference game.